Surviving Tick Season with Dogs: Everything You Need to Know to Keep Your Dog Safe


If you have hiked with your pup in Minnesota, chances are that you are all too familiar with ticks. These tiny creatures are pervasive in spring, summer, and fall. While just the idea of these small arachnids gorging on your pup’s blood can be revolting, the fact that they spread several tick-borne diseases is even more concerning.

So how do you keep your dog safe from ticks? The best way to prevent ticks from taking a meal from your dog is to use a tick preventative. There are four main categories of preventatives, oral, topical, collars, and sprays. All 4 will be discussed in detail below. Additionally, even with a good preventative on board, it is also important to perform a thorough tick check after each hike or outdoor adventure.

In this post, you will find more information about ticks themselves, the different types of tick preventatives available for dogs (with helpful comparison charts), and some factors to consider when choosing the best preventative for your dog. Additionally, this post includes tips for tick checking after hikes and how to safely remove a tick from your dog. All of which is most-know information if you plan on bringing your dog along to enjoy the beautiful outdoor spaces that Minnesota (or other tick-infested states) has to offer this summer.

As you read all of the information below, you will find a lot of links to websites with great tick prevalence and prevention information. All external links will open in a new tab, so don’t be afraid to click the links as they interest you. You won’t lose your place in this post.

Ticks in Minnesota

Ticks are small crawling bugs that are part of the spider family. They feed on blood from other animals. Often found in wooded, brushy areas, they crawl and grab onto dogs (or people or other animals) that brush against the vegetation. Ticks can appear year round, but in Minnesota they are most active between March and October.

According to the University of Minnesota, there are 13 known tick species in Minnesota. The two most common are the Blacklegged (deer) tick and the American dog (wood) tick. However, recently Minnesota has been seeing increasing populations of the Lone Star Tick also. 

Not in Minnesota? Take a look at the Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s tick prevalence maps to find out which ticks are in your local woods and grasses.

Blacklegged Tick (Ixodes scapularis)

The Blacklegged tick is the smallest of the three main tick species and is the most common tick in Minnesota. Adult females are a reddish brown with a black head, legs and scutum. Unfed adults don’t have any markings on their bodies.

In Minnesota, adult Blacklegged ticks typically emerge as soon as the snow melts and reach peak activity by the end of May. Adult ticks often stay active throughout June, with a second surge of activity in September and October (or until snow covers the ground again). Nymphs (who can also spread disease) are often active from mid-May through July.

Nymphs molt into adults in the fall of their second year. Typically this is when they also mate, creating hundreds to thousands of eggs. Adult ticks die after mating. However, some adults who do not feed or mate in the fall will survive the winter and then feed and/or mate in the spring. This is why it is possible to find an active adult tick searching for a host on a warm winter day.

Blacklegged ticks are responsible for most of the tick-borne diseases prevalent in Minnesota. In order to spread disease, a Blacklegged tick needs to be infected with a disease agent and attached for a certain amount of time. We will talk about time of attachment needed for transmission of various tick-borne disease later in this post.

On average, about 1-3 adult Blacklegged ticks and 1 in 5 Blacklegged tick nymphs are infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

Blacklegged ticks live in wooded, brushy areas, so exposure to these ticks is often greatest on wooded hiking trails. These ticks look for their hosts from the tips of shrubs and low-lying vegetation. This means that they general attach near ground level by grabbing onto dogs (or other animals/people) that brush against the vegetation.

More information about statistics of ticks in Minnesota can be found at MN State website, Washington County website, or the University of Minnesota Extension website.

And to help you better identify Blacklegged (and American Dog and Lone Star) ticks, check out this great graphic created by the CDC..

American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)

The American dog tick is the largest of the three ticks discussed in this post. The unfed adults are dark brown with off-white markings. The markings on the females cover half of the body, while the whitish markings cover nearly the entire body of the male. The markings are difficult to see on engorged ticks and not present on immature ticks.

Like the Blacklegged tick, American dog ticks are found, near ground level. However, they prefer areas with little or no tree cover, such as grassy fields and scrubland. They can be found questing (searching for a host) in tall grass and on low lying brush in twigs.

Like all ticks, they go through three life stages: larva, nymph, and adult. An American Dog tick can survive for up to 2 years at any given stage if no host is found. The University of Rhode Island has great information about this species of tick on their Tick Encounter site.

The American Dog tick can carry and transmit to diseases – tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Luckily for those of us in Minnesota, per the Minnesota Department of Health, both of these diseases are extremely rare in Minnesota and the surrounding states. Find out more about tick-borne disease in Minnesota on the State Health site.

Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)

Lone Star ticks were once mostly found in the southern United States, but these ticks have begun to make their way to Minnesota.  The adult female is easily identifiable by the small white marking present in the center of her brown body.  Males have spots or streaks of white around the outer edge if the body.

These ticks are found mostly in woodlands with dense undergrowth.

While Lone Star ticks can transmit several different tick-borne diseases, they most commonly transmit the organism that causes ehrlichiosis (more about this disease later).

For more information about identifying tick species:

While the CDC is primarily focused on the human side of tick-borne illness, a lot of good data on the prevalence of ticks and how to identify ticks can be found at www.cdc.gov.

Another resource that I find helpful for finding good client handouts on ticks and tick prevention is DVM360.com. This site is aimed towards veterinarians, but their Tick Disease Toolkit has plenty of good resources for dog owners too.

Tick-Borne Diseases

There are 3 main tick-borne diseases of concern to dogs: ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease, and anaplasmosis. Ehrlichiosis is very rare in Minnesota, so for dogs in the midwest, the big concerns are Lyme disease and anaplasmosis. If a dog is infested with ticks they can also suffer from tick paralysis, which will resolve with the removal of ticks. Less common in Minnesota are Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, and Hepatozoonosis. 

In this post, we will discuss the first three, but if you want a quick overview of all 6, head over to this article by Pet Health Network.

Lyme Disease

Most inhabitants of Minnesota and the surrounding states are familiar with Lyme disease. Many of us even personally know a person or animal who has suffered from this disease process. Despite knowing that Lyme disease is common, it is still a little shocking to look at the statistics

In 2018, 12,260 dogs tested positive for exposure to Lyme disease in the state of Minnesota alone. This number comes from dogs that have been tested at their veterinary clinics, so it is likely that the true number is even higher. (Don’t live in Minnesota? Find the data for your state, and even county, at CAPCVet.org.)

If you are not familiar with Lyme disease, here are the basics. Lyme disease is a disease that affects both animals and humans. It is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the United States (per the CDC). The bacterium that causes Lyme disease is Borrellia burgdorferia.

The biggest carrier (and transmitter) of this bacteria is the Blacklegged tick.

Symptoms of Lyme disease include lethargy, fever, inappetence, and a classic shifting leg lameness (limping). If left untreated, these early symptoms can progress to kidney failure, seizures, and even death. Symptoms may not develop for 2-5 months after the tick bite that infects the dog. 

Dogs are lucky to have a vaccine available to minimize the possibility of becoming severely ill after exposure to Borrelia burgdorferi. But preventing exposure in the first place is always preferable.

In order to transmit Lyme disease, ticks must be attached for 24-48 hours. As a result, performing a basic tick check after every hike is an important part of preventing transmission of Lyme disease. 

Find out more information about Lyme disease in dogs at AVMA.org.

Anaplasmosis

While most of us are familiar with Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis (the disease resulting from infection with Anaplasma species) has less notoriety. Despite the general lack of awareness, anaplasmosis is the second most common tick-borne disease in dogs in Minnesota. 

In 2018, 9,192 dogs tested positive for exposure to Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Anaplasma platys.

As alluded to above, the two organisms that cause anaplasmosis are Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Anaplasma platys. 

In Minnesota, anaplasmosis is primarily spread by Blacklegged ticks. Transmission of Anaplasma species occurs faster than transmission of Lyme disease, so prompt tick checks after hiking is even more important for prevention. Blacklegged ticks need only be attached for 12-24 hours to transmit the bacteria that cause anaplasmosis. 

Symptoms of anaplasmosis in dogs are similar to Lyme disease and include fever, vomiting, loss of appetite, limping/lameness, bleeding disorders and rarely, change in mental status. Like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis can be treated with an oral antibiotic (often doxycycline).

Unlike Lyme disease, there is no vaccine to reduce the chance of a dog developing an active infection with Anaplasma species.

Ehrlichiosis

Ehrlichiosis, caused by either Ehrlichia canis, Ehrlichia ewingii, or Ehrlichia chafeensis is found throughout much of the south-eastern and south-central United States. Currently, only a small number of cases have been reported in Minnesota. In 2018, only 2,156 dogs in Minnesota tested positive for exposure to Ehrlichia canis or Ehrlichia ewingii. 

In my experience working as a veterinarian in western Wisconsin and Minnesota, many of the dogs that show up positive for exposure to Ehrlichia species, are dogs that have previously lived outside of the Midwest. For example, Minnesota receives a lot of rescue/humane society dogs from states like Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, etc. Despite this, it is still important that tick preventatives used on dogs in the Midwest include a product that kills the Lone Star tick.

Ehrlichiosis can cause fever, swollen lymph nodes, breathing difficulty, weight loss, and bleeding disorders. Again, treatment is generally effective. Infected dogs are often prescribed a long course of an antibiotic, such as Doxycycline.

Testing for Tick-Borne Disease in Dogs

Much of the data above was collected from screening tests in veterinary clinics. It is recommended that all dogs are screened yearly for heartworm. And most veterinary clinics in Minnesota and the surrounding states used a product called a SNAP 4Dx Plus Test. If you are interested in learning about how this test works, head over to the manufacturer (Idexx)’s website.

Since this test checks for antibodies, not antigen, dogs who have been exposed once may show up positive on this test for several years in a row. If you aren’t familiar with the terms antibody and antigen, here is a simple definition. Antigen is the disease-causing organism itself. Antibodies are what the dog’s immune system creates to help defeat the invading organism.

If a dog tests positive for Lme disease, oftentimes a second blood test will be recommended to check the level of antigen. This test is called a quantitative C6 test.

Like learning about Lyme disease testing procedures? Find out more about testing and treatment at Idexx.com (this information is aimed at veterinary professionals).

Tick Prevention

As the old adage goes, the best offense is a good defense. Essentially, the best way to keep your dog safe from ticks is to go on the defense. Defend your dog from ticks and prevent the transmission of tick-borne diseases. 

There are several different types of tick preventatives. The four main categories are chewable/oral monthly medications, topical or “spot-on” monthly medications, tick collars, and herbal/”natural” remedies.

Chewable/Oral Tick Preventatives

The oral tick preventatives are some of the newest tick preventatives on the market. These category of preventatives includes big brand names like Nexgard, Bravecto, Simparica, and Credelio. All four of these oral chews will also treat/prevent flea infestations. 

All 4 of these chews relatively similar in dosing and administration, with the biggest difference being that Nexgard, Simparica, and Credelio are intended to be administered once monthly, while Bravecto is intended to be administered once every 3 months.

It is important to note that while Nexgard and Credelio are approved for use in dogs 8 weeks of age and older, Bravecto and Simparica are only approved for dogs 6 months of age and older.

Most of these preventatives can be started when a dog is around 4 lbs in weight. Simparica is the only one that has an option for tiniest adult dogs that remain in the 2.8 to 4 pound range.

All 4 of these oral preventatives currently require a veterinary prescription, although that may change in the future. Regardless, I highly recommend discussing the selection of a flea and tick preventative with your veterinarian prior to starting your dog on a new preventative.

For a quick overview of the differences between these oral tick preventatives, check out the chart below.

All of the current oral tick preventatives are members of the isoxazoline class of drugs. They work when a tick takes a blood meal from a dog and is exposed to the isoxazoline ectoparasiticide. The ectoparasiticide inhibits the tick’s GABA receptor, resulting in uncontrolled neuromuscular activity. Basically, ingestion of a treated dog’s blood kills the tick.  This means that a tick does have to bite and begin taking a blood meal before it will be killed by the preventative. 

Since the ticks are not killed on contact with the dog’s skin, there is a higher risk for ticks to transfer to other warm-blooded animals before biting. Make sure you are thoroughly checking your dog for ticks after hiking and well before snuggling on the couch or crawling into bed.

You may have heard some allegations against these companies stating that the products are unsafe and have caused harm to dogs. Personally, I have been using Nexgard (and occasionally Simparica and Credelio) for my own dogs since 2014. As a veterinarian, most of my canine patients are on Nexgard for their tick prevention. I have had a couple reports of vomiting and diarrhea after administration, as well as a couple of reports of generalized lethargy, but most dogs tolerate Nexgard well. Of course a few of my picky patients just flat out refuse to eat this monthly chew.

The only two groups of patients that I do not recommend this tick preventative for are dogs with seizures and dogs on a food allergy trial (when an oral medication with flavoring may cause allergy flare-ups).

Despite my clinical experience being one of relative safety, there are reports out there about potential severe reactions to preventatives in the isoxazoline group. In fact, there have been enough reports that the FDA recently released a warning about potential adverse effects. You can find the FDA’s fact sheet here.

All of these oral tick preventatives do have warnings not to administer to a dog with a history of seizures, but otherwise, they are approved for use healthy dogs. As part of writing this blog post, I reviewed the safety data from each of these oral tick preventatives for dogs.

For a quick overview of the adverse reactions listed on the product labels, here is a comparison of data from the safety trials performed by each of the 4 companies. Vomiting and diarrhea were the main adverse reactions, although many of the dogs in the control groups (who did not receive a chew with the isoxazoline ectoparasiticide in it) also suffered from vomiting and diarrhea during the study. The most severe side effects mostly occurred in the groups that were given higher doses of isoxazoline medications.

Since this is just a quick overview of the different products, the best way to find in-depth information is to head straight to the source. The following links will bring you to each products main website and to their product label.

Nexgard

Simparica

Bravecto

Credelio

Topical Tick Prevention

For decades, the standard tick preventatives were topical. While oral tick preventatives require a prescription from your veterinarian, many topical tick preventatives are available over the counter.

Topical or “spot-on” tick preventatives are commonly administered to the skin between a pets shoulder blades/along the back once monthly. Be aware that you shouldn’t bathe your dog for 24 hours before or 48 hours after most of these topical products.

The biggest name in topical tick preventatives is Merial’s Frontline products. This is the product I grew up administering to my family dog. But there are many different options available for purchase today. Keep reading for an overview of several of the most common topical tick preventatives.

Keep in mind – many of these are toxic to cats. So if you have a combination cat and dog household, make sure the product is dry and distributed around your dog before you let your cat sleep or play with the dog. And make sure to NEVER give your cat the dog’s tick preventative.

There are several different products used in topical solutions to kill and/or repel ticks. Many of these products also have ingredients aimed at reducing flea infestations. Only the ingredients that have efficacy against ticks have been bolded.

  • Permethrin: Permethrin both repels and kills ticks. It is safe for both humans and dogs to apply topically. In fact, people absorb less permethrin into their skin than they do DEET. Permethrin is 2,250 times moe toxic to ticks than humans.  However, permethrin is a pyrethrin and therefore is toxic to cats! So keep cats away from this product.
  • Fipronil: Fipronil is an ectoparasiticide that blocks the action of a neurotransmitter in fleas, ticks and mites..
  • Methoprene: This is an insect growth regulator, mostly aimed at reducing flea-infestations.
  • Amitraz: Amitraz is both a tick repellant and detachment agent, as well as a flea repellent. It presists on hair/fur long enough to control all stages of the parasites.
  • Pyriproxyfen: This is another insect growth regulator that inhibits the hatching of flea eggs and development of larva. It has no efficacy against ticks.
  • Fluralanar: This is the topical version of the same product used in the chewable Bravecto tablet.
  • Cyphenothrin: This parasiticide belongs to the chemical class of pyrethyroids and is effective against lice, mites, fleas, flies and ticks. Remember, pyrethrins are toxic to cats.
  • Imidacloprid: This product kills fleas, not ticks.
  • Dinotefuran: Again, this product kills fleas, but not ticks.

The chart below shows several of the common topical flea and tick preventatives. The active ingredient that works against ticks has been highlighted.

If you are wondering about the efficacy of chewables compared to topicals, and if you are up to reading a scholarly article after this blog post, check out “Systemically and cutaneously distributed ectoparasiticides: a review of the efficacy against ticks and fleas on dogs” by Pfister and Armstrong.

In the veterinary industry, we have started seeing increased resistance to many of the flea-preventatives on the market. There is some concern ticks are also developing resistance to the topicals that have been around the longest. A 2014 study, “Insecticide/ascaricide resistance in fleas and ticks infesting dogs and cats” by Coles and Dryden, reported resistance to ticks of interest to veterinarians (and pet owners).

This study only had 1 report of ascaricide resistance to the Lone Star tick, 2 reports of resistance for the American Dog Tick, and 9 for the Brown Dog tick. However, the landscape of tick resistance is consistently changing and evolving. So if your tick product of choice doesn’t seem to be working as well anymore. It may be time to try out a different product.

It is also important to note, that there can be a significant difference in how efficacious different topical tick preventatives are, so I recommend using a brand name rather than a generic store brand.

Another item to note is that, unlike the oral preventatives, some of the topical preventatives are safe for breeding and lactating dogs. So look through these product labels if you have a breeding dog at home.

Tick Collars

Tick collars can be another excellent option for tick prevention. These collars work by releasing an ectoparasiticide when the collar makes contact with the dog’s skin. The product than spreads throughout the dog’s skin resulting in full body protection.

Seresto is the current industry leader in tick collars for dogs. Watch their video on efficacy below.

 

Other current tick collars on the market include Scalibur, Preventic, and Activyl.

The following chart offers a quick side by side comparison of these 4 brands of tick collars for dogs.

We found some of this information at MarvistaVet.com. They have an excellent tick product comparison guide that covers oral, topical, and collar preventatives. VeterinaryPartner.com also has a nice list of most of the products on the market.

For a different sites review of the best flea/tick collars, DrFoxMag.com has a nice comparison review.

Herbal/Holistic Approaches

While I don’t personally have a lot of experience preventing ticks with alternative products (those without ectoparasiticides), I feel the need to mention these alternatives in this blog post for thoroughness sake.

I have heard a lot of people online recommend Cedarcide/Wondercide products. And honestly, I am planning on trying their products out this summer. For Glia and I, who hike in tick-heavy areas, I would love to use Cedarcide in addition to Nexgard for extra protection. In particular, I would like to see if it will help reduce the number of ticks making it to the point of biting Glia.

I was unable to easily find a product label or research study for Cedarcide products, but the company claims the product is tested and proven effective. I haven’t reached out to the company for this information yet, but if anyone has the data, I would love to include it in this post.

Check out the following video for the companies instructions on how to use their original spray.

There are many more natural pet product companies beyond Cedarcide. And there are a lot of essential oil recipes on the internet. Please use caution as some essential oils can be toxic to pets. This includes some cedar oil products.  Additionally, a lot of home tick repellent recipes have not been tested for the length of efficacy or even to see if they are truly efficacious at all. Make sure you do your research before skipping the ectoparasiticides in favor of a more natural solution.

For another perspective on finding non-toxic ways to protect your pet from fleas and ticks, check out this article by NRDC.org.

So Which Tick Preventative is Best for Your Dog?

As with most answers about the “best” product, it depends. For dogs with sensitive skin who dislike the topical applications, oral tick preventatives are probably best. For picky eaters, you may want to stick with a topical or a tick collar. But the biggest thing is to watch and make sure your choice is working on the ticks in your area. If you are finding bloated and full ticks on your dog, talk to your veterinarian about trying a different option.

Currently, both of my dogs are on oral tick preventatives (typically Nexgard). The biggest reason I switched to an oral tick prevention for both Glia and Sasha is due to the ease of administration of the oral chew. It is a delicious treat that they both enjoy. In contrast, applying a topical flea/tick preventative to Glia required timing it with a distraction. Without a walk or other distraction, Glia would just roll around on the living room carpet for 15 minutes trying to get the liquid off. And while I don’t mind my carpet being protected against fleas, I would prefer that Glia get her full dose of prevention.

How to Tick Check after Hiking with Your Dog

No matter which prevention you choose, performing a thorough tick check after hiking is an important part of any good tick prevention protocol.

If you use an oral tick preventative, you may find more ticks on your dog after hiking compared to a topical preventative or a tick collar. Although these ticks will die after taking a small blood meal, ticks that have not attached can be a risk to other animals or people in the household. 

Check for ticks after every outdoor adventure. Run your fingers through your pet’s fur with gentle pressure, feeling for any small bumps. Most ticks will be found on your dogs head and legs, but be sure to check body creases (such as armpits or the groin area) for ticks that have burrowed in. Pay special attention to the area in and around ears, under the collar, around eyelids, under front legs, between toes, and around the tail.

The CDC has a helpful diagram on their website. Or check out the video below for a good demonstration.

Be thorough. Ticks can attach anywhere. Take this image of a tick in a dog’s mouth for example.

How to Remove a Tick

Okay, so you finished your tick check and found a tick. Now what?

Tick removal is relatively simple. There are a variety of tick removal aids which I have used with variable success. My favorite method is simply using tweezers (or a hemostat if available). Spread your dogs fur. Then grab the tick as close to the dogs skin as possible. You may end up grabbing some fur with it. Then in a smooth strong movement, pull the tick away from your dog.

Here is a demonstration of how to remove a tick. In this video they are using a hemostat.

If you don’t want to use tweezers or a hemostat, you can purchase a tick removal tool to aid you. There are many different tick removal tools on the market – just google “tick removal tool” and you will see several results.

After removing the tick, check to make sure that the head of the tick was removed with the body. Don’t panic if the head was left behind, this does happen occasionally. Sometimes you can grab the head and remove it with the tweezers. Leaving the head behind can cause increased irritation at the tick bite location and increases the risk of infection of the skin at this site. But if you can’t get the head after a little digging, I normally leave it. The trauma of continuing to dig for the head is often worse than the mild inflammation your dog will develop from a retained tick head. 

Typically, I place a little triple antibiotic ointment on the skin twice daily if a tick bite is inflamed or if the head was left behind. However, as with all medical concerns, I recommend consulting with your dog’s veterinarian if you are concerned about a tick bite site.

In Summary

To review, there are three main tick species of concern in Minnesota – the Blacklegged (deer) tick, the American Dog (wood) tick, and the Lone Star Tick. The Blacklegged (deer) tick is responsible for the majority of tick-borne disease transmission in Minnesota and the surrounding states.

The 3 main tick-borne illness of concern for dogs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the surrounding states are Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis. It takes 24-48 hours of attachment for a tick to transmit Lyme causing organisms, but only 12-24 hours to transmit anaplasmosis causing bacterium.

It can take 2-5 months after exposure for a dog to develop symptoms of a tick-borne disease. Common symptoms are lethargy, not eating well, vomiting and diarrhea, fevers, and limping. Most tick-borne diseases are treatable if caught early.

The best way to protect your dog from ticks is to use a tick preventative. These preventatives come in the form of ectoparasiticides as oral chews, topical “spot-on” products, or in tick collars. Some other products may have efficacy in repelling ticks and limiting exposure.

In addition to administering tick preventatives, it is important to perform frequent and thorough tick checks after your dog spends time outdoors. Prompt removal of ticks prevents transmission of tick-borne diseases.

So now that you know everything about keeping your dog safe from ticks while hiking these summer, all you need to do is pick a hiking trail and get outside with your pup.

Don’t know where you want to hike? Browse our list of hiking trail reviews for some inspiration.

 

Kate

Kate is the writer of Pawsitively Intrepid. She currently works full-time as a veterinarian, treating dogs and cats. But in her free time, she loves to hike and adventure with her dogs, Sasha and Glia.

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