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The best way to deal with a tick bite on dogs

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Tick bites on dogs are common as they often run through the undergrowth and have their noses low to the ground. Prevention is better than cure but if your dog has a tick here is everything you need to know.

Ticks in Australia

Australia has, quite rightly, an international reputation for being home to some of the world’s most venomous creatures. It’s no surprise, then, that our common paralysis tick, Ixodes holocyclus, is one of the most virulent in existence.

As Australian dog-owners know only too well, the toxin from one adult female tick is enough to kill a large dog. Each year about 100,000 domestic animals are affected by ticks, with some 10 per cent of them treated by vets for symptoms of paralysis.

And it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse: according to a British study, climate change is most likely responsible for booming tick populations in Europe, and their numbers will further increase if predicted rises in global temperatures occur over the coming decades.

But it’s not all bad news. While tick populations are growing, the number of paralysis cases is actually decreasing. “Due to the presence of relatively new tick preventative medicines in the veterinary market, tick paralysis is becoming less prevalent,” says Blackmores technical services veterinarian Dr Sarah Howard.

Awareness and prevention are the keywords when it comes to keeping your beloved pet tick-free. But before we get to the hows and whys of care and treatment, let’s start with a biology lesson.

Anatomy of a tick

The paralysis tick is found along the east coast of Australia, east of the Great Dividing Range, and is most abundant from September to March. Ix. holocyclus loves moist, humid conditions and long grasses and bushland and is most active during periods of high humidity, especially after rain, so this is a time you need to be particularly vigilant.

It might be tiny (generally 1cm long when engorged after feeding on your pooch’s blood), but this tick is highly sophisticated. The toxin that causes paralysis comes from the salivary glands of a feeding female, and that saliva contains chemical compounds such as anti-coagulants that overcome your dog’s immune and inflammatory mechanisms, allowing the tick to feed to its heart’s content.

A tick attaches itself by piercing its sharp mouth-parts into your dog’s skin. As it feeds, it starts to swell in size and turns from a brownish shade to a light blue/grey colour.

What is the best way to check your dog for ticks?

So, you know what a tick looks like, but how best to check that your dog is tick-free? “Massage your fingers through the dog’s coat down to the skin thoroughly, paying special attention to areas around the face and neck, and not forgetting to check inside ears,” advises Dr Howard. Make sure you remove your pooch’s collar and check there, too.

Daily checks are advised during tick season, especially in higher-risk areas – i.e., if you live close to bush and scrubland. Interestingly, the British study mentioned earlier found that dogs that lived in cities were no less likely to have ticks than dogs that spent more time in rural areas, so be thorough no matter where you live. (Equally fascinating: older dogs were more likely to have ticks than those aged one and under, and desexed dogs were at lower risk than their unspayed counterparts.)

How to remove a tick from your dog?

If your dog has a tick bite, you need to extract it pronto. Experts suggest using a tool called a “tick twister” which resembles a tiny fork that slides on either side of the tick without coming into contact with its body. These are readily available at pet stores, pharmacies and online.

Using the tick twister, remove the tick by its head where it has attached to the pets’ skin: this is essential because if any of the tick’s mouth-parts are left in, they may cause an infection. The site shouldn’t need any treatment unless it appears red and inflamed, says Howard. “If it is red, a gentle bathe with some warm salty water and applying a soothing balm like PAW Manuka Wound Gel would be best.”

Don’t throw the tick away because your vet will most likely want to see it. Douse it with a little alcohol and pop it into a small zip-lock plastic bag.

If you don’t feel confident about removing a tick, ask your veterinarian for a little practical training the next time you visit.

When to get the vet involved?

If you’ve extracted the tick from the bite area nice and early, your four-legged friend should be fine, but it’s best to err on the side of caution. “I recommend always taking the dog and the tick to the vet to be on the absolute safe side,” Howard says.

It’s also essential that you recognise any signs of tick toxicity. “This resembles an ascending paralysis, usually beginning in the back legs and tail,” she says. “You may see a weakness in the back legs, progressing to the front legs, a cough or gag, retching or vomiting, a change in the sound of your dog’s bark and laboured breathing.”

“Call the vet if you see any of those signs or any change in behaviour or gait.”

In the meantime, before you get to the vet, try and keep your dog quiet and as stress-free as possible, keep them in a temperature-controlled environment (i.e., not too hot or cold) and don’t give your pooch anything to eat or drink.

How to prevent tick bites on dogs?

How can you lessen the chances of your pooch getting ticked off? Sarah Howard suggests a two-pronged approach: daily grooming and an oral tick preventative medicine.

Looking for natural ways to prevent ticks on dogs? “Daily grooming and a thorough massage can certainly help,” she says. “And keeping the coat clipped in spring and summer months also helps because ticks are easier to find when the coat is nice and short.”

However, dogs in high tick areas can benefit from taking oral tick preventative medicine, she says. There are plenty of products such as washes, shampoos and collars on the market, too.

Always check with your vet that any product you use is suitable for your dog, and remember that some dog tick treatments are poisonous to cats.