By: Dr. Edison Barrientos

As you may already know, ticks are presenting a growing concern for people living in Ontario, especially it’s most densely populated southern region. Ticks have been getting some attention recently because they are vectors for lyme disease, a disease that affects animals and humans alike. Their current spotlight in human medicine has given those concerned with the health of your pets an opportunity to educate people about the threats they pose to our dogs. That’s the goal of my post today: to make sure you know how to avoid ticks and why you should be concerned.

How do ticks find hosts?
Ticks live, for the most part, in grassy areas. Before feeding they are approximately the size of a sesame seed. They sit and wait on the tip of a long blade of grass until an unsuspecting host wanders by. When you, or your dog, or any warm-blooded animal walks by they grab hold and begin searching for the perfect spot to sink their teeth in. After feeding, ticks can grow to the size of a large raisin. These engorged adults eventually drop off and lay thousands of eggs that will eventually hatch into ticks.

Where do ticks live?
As mentioned earlier, ticks are generally found in tall grass and wooded areas where they can find a high blade of grass to await a host. This includes parks in the city. We have found ticks on dogs that were playing in Trinity Bellwoods, High Park, and a number of other parks in downtown Toronto. Ticks used to be associated with living in the southern United States and South America, but recently they have become more and more prevalent in colder climates like Canada. Ticks are able to stay dormant through the winter months and begin feeding again as soon as the temperature is above 4 degrees Celsius. Due to recent climate changes though, they aren’t even necessarily inactive over winter. This year in Toronto, we haven’t had a single month where the temperature stayed below 4 degrees every day.

Ticks can also live in homes. Specifically, the brown dog. Though they don’t bite humans and they don’t carry lyme disease, they have been known to cause massive infestations in homes. These ticks have been known to carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a disease that causes high fever, vomiting, muscle cramping, and even death in both humans and dogs. Brown dog ticks also sometimes carry Ehrlichia, a disease that shows similar symptoms to Rocky Mountain spotted fever in humans and dogs. Though brown dog ticks are mostly believed to only live in warmer climates, we actually found one on a dog who has never left Toronto just a month ago.

Why do ticks present a threat?
The biggest problem with ticks is that they transmit a number of diseases from host to host. Most people have heard of Lyme disease and the problems it can cause for humans that have been affected. In dogs, it’s just as infectious. Lots of people believe their dogs are safe because they don’t leave the city, but we’re quickly realizing that is no longer a safe assumption. In fact, my dog Dali got a tick in Trinity Bellwoods 2 years ago and tested lyme positive. Because we got her checked immediately and had it treated by professionals before she was showing symptoms, she has made a full recovery, but many people are not so lucky.

Lyme is not the only disease we are concerned about ticks transmitting though. There are many other diseases they transmit that are not getting as much press as lyme disease is right now. As mentioned previously, there are diseases like Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichia that cause severe fevers, pain and dehydration. Long term, these diseases can cause anemia and organ failure. The problem with ticks is that they make excellent vectors for disease.

How do we avoid ticks?
There are many ways we can help our dogs avoid getting these diseases, and ultimately prevent them from spreading these diseases to your family. The first step to preventing your dog from being bitten by ticks and getting infected is to have them on a topical insecticide. These medications stay in the skin and instead of killing the ticks after they have bitten their host, they kill them within 5 minutes of contact, before the tick can even bite their host.

Another way to prevent infection is to run annual bloodwork testing for lyme disease. Because it can lay dormant, and because there’s a chance your dog could be bitten on warmer days in colder months, doing bloodwork every is the only way to be absolutely certain your dog doesn’t end up with an infection that ends up in its chronic stages before it can be treated. On top of this bloodwork, if you do find a tick on your dog, it’s important to have that tick tested to see if it is one that is carrying disease.

Finally, you can have your dog vaccinated for lyme disease. Though not a vaccine that we would recommend for every dog, if your dog goes outside at all in Toronto, it’s best to have them vaccinated for lyme. It provides that extra layer of protection against contracting lyme disease, in case they are somehow bitten by a tick if you accidentally miss a prevention treatment.

In summary, ticks are a public health threat in both human and animal medicine. The first step to prevention is education, which is why we felt this article was important. We hope that no dogs contract tick borne diseases this summer. In order to make that happen, we know that you need to know what you’re up against. This summer, we plan to be dedicating much of our time and energy to keeping your dogs disease free.