As warmer weather approaches, Ontarians and their pets alike celebrate by spending significantly more time outside. However, something potentially dangerous to humans and pets lurks in the grass: ticks.
With milder seasons, the potential for tick activity increases, according to Stacy Murphy, a registered veterinary technician at the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society.
“Tick season starts any time the temperature is above four degrees,” said Murphy. “Ticks are active over that temperature. So any time we kind of get into this early spring, they can start becoming active. It lasts right until it gets colder again, so until it’s below four degrees consistently, which could be into December. It’s less likely if it’s been really cold and it just warms up for a day or so. Their method of catching onto other animals is by climbing grass. So if there’s a lot of snow it’s less likely that they’ll be able to actually move about and climb up the grass and do their questing, which is when they put their little arms out and grab onto things.”
Blacklegged ticks, otherwise known as deer ticks, are the only known species of tick that carries Lyme disease. Luckily, the transmission rate Lyme disease into dogs from ticks is low.
“We only see about five per cent of the dogs that get bitten by ticks that have Lyme disease actually go on to get Lyme disease,” said Murphy. “We also see that they will go onto cats, but we see even lower rates. Like, into the point-zero percentile of cats that can actually get a type of Lyme disease.”
Lyme disease is a neurological disease that affects the nervous system, potentially causing paralysis. It may eventually be fatal.
Species-at-risk researcher Mike Bagnall said he once counted 36 ticks on his body while doing research in the field over the course of an hour and a half, having as many as six on him at one time.
While working for Wildlife Preservation Canada, Bagnall came home after a shift and found a tick on his arm.
“We were researching species-at-risk snakes and when I got home I noticed a little spot on my arm. I was like, ‘What is that? I don’t remember having a freckle there,’” he laughed. “I thought maybe it was just a piece of dirt so I tried scratching it off. It wasn’t coming off. And then I looked under a magnifying glass and saw that it was a tiny nymph . . . I took it off of me, put it in a little vial, preserved it, took it to the Essex County Health Unit; they shipped it to a lab in Manitoba where they confirmed that it was a deer tick, the species that carries Lyme disease. It took them several weeks. I remember, every time I felt any symptom whatsoever, I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s Lyme disease, I’m going to die.’ But they ended up getting back to me and they said it was negative.”
While it is important to let a vet remove a tick if possible, Murphy said that it’s a good idea to try and keep a tick in a sandwich bag or pill vial if visiting a vet isn’t an option, so that later, a vet can identify it, assess the risk and treat the animal accordingly.
A tool called a tick twister is available for people to buy so that they can safely remove a tick themselves without the risk of leaving mouth pieces inside the skin, potentially causing an infection or irritation. Murphy recommends watching videos on how to remove a tick as a last resort as well.
As far as prevention goes, Murphy said that it’s important for people to have a conversation about ticks and their pet’s lifestyle with their veterinarian.
“It’s a bit of a balance between protecting your animal and not over medicating or over vaccinating your animal,” said Murphy. “Are you travelling with your animal? Are you going to places where Lyme disease is endemic in ticks, such as Long Point and Gananoque or those types of long-grass prairie areas? Is your animal running through fields or is your dog the type of dog that is limited to your backyard or pavement walks? That way you can make the best decision for your animal [in terms of] prevention, vaccination and general diligence about what you need to do in order to make sure that you catch any ticks that are on them.”
“There’s a vaccine, there’s preventative products like Bravecto and Nexgard that provide some coverage for ticks if the tick happens to attach to your animal by biting,” she said. “It makes it so that they can’t transmit disease. There’s also just brushing over your animal after you’ve been out in places that ticks like to be. So long grassy areas. They also like to live in woodland debris, so under leaves and stuff like that. If you’ve been out walking in the woods or and tall grassy areas it would be a good idea to brush your animal, even take a lint roller to them if they’ve got shorter fur to make sure that you pick up any ticks that are wandering or could be on the fur feeding.”
Symptoms of Lyme disease in animals most commonly present as shifting lameness in the limbs. Symptoms in humans present as a general malaise, numbness or tingling in limbs, inability to move limbs normally, weakness and soreness.
Murphy also said that it’s important to know that just because a tick has been found on an animal does not mean it has been bitten.
“They do have to be attached for 24 to 48 hours before they are able to start transmitting diseases,” she said. “Ticks aren’t like fleas. Fleas jump on and they wanna find a meal. They’re going to bite you right away. Ticks will actually wander through the coat until they find a really great spot and then they’ll settle down there. So you do have some time from when a tick might get on your animal to get it off before it bites or before it transmits disease.”