Many people consider ticks to be just plain gross. (In fact, we decided to not include a picture of ticks in this article because of their grossness.) Certainly, finding a tick–or worse yet, multiple ticks–on yourself can be a bit alarming after venturing outdoors. But ticks can be more than just gross and annoying: they can be downright dangerous.

Montana is home to two ticks that can transmit diseases to cats, dogs, and humans: the Brown Dog Tick and the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick. Both the Brown Dog Tick and the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick can transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick can also transmit Colorado Tick Fever and Tularemia (also known as Rabbit Fever.) Unfortunately, tick territory is growing.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2013 a soft-bodied tick (with the lengthy name of Ornithodoros hermsi) infected a Bitterroot Valley resident with Relapsing Fever, signaling a spread of that disease into Montana. Outside of Montana, there are at least four other species of ticks in the United States that can also transmit disease, including Lyme disease.

In Montana, tick season lasts from the onset of warmer weather in the spring until about mid-July, when warmer weather and low relative humidity cause the ticks to become inactive. Adult ticks are usually easy to identify, but male and female ticks can look different. Only female ticks become large and engorged just before laying eggs. Larval and nymph stage ticks can be very small and hard to identify, and unfortunately, some tick species can transmit disease even in the nymph stage.

So, how do ticks get on us anyway? Contrary to popular myths, ticks cannot jump and do not crawl higher than 2 feet off the ground. So, if you find a tick on your head, it crawled there; it did not fall out of a tree. Instead, ticks crawl up low vegetation and wait for people or animals to pass by. As they wait for a suitable host to grab, ticks hold onto a leaf with their hind legs and stretch out their front legs. Once they’ve grabbed a host, they will then crawl to a suitable area before attaching to feed. They will remain attached for several days, unless they are noticed and removed.

In order to enhance their survival, ticks have become masters of stealth. The reason you can’t feel them “bite” is because of the special enzymes they secrete in their saliva. These enzymes prevent inflammation and promote pain relief, allowing them to stay imbedded for several days without being noticed by the host.

What should you do if you find an imbedded tick? Ticks can be easily removed with fine-tipped tweezers or needle nose pliers.  Firmly grasp the tick around the head as close to the skin surface as possible, and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Do not twist or jerk the tick; this may cause the mouthparts to break off and remain in the skin. Also, do not squeeze, crush, or puncture the body of the tick because this can cause the tick to release additional saliva, increasing the chance of transmitting a disease. Skin accidentally exposed to tick fluids can be disinfected with iodine scrub or rubbing alcohol. After removing the tick, thoroughly disinfect the bite site and wash your hands with soap and water. The tick can be saved for future identification, if needed, by placing it in a sealable plastic bag and putting it in the freezer. Never try to remove a tick by smearing it in oil, petroleum jelly, or by touching it with hot matches! This will not cause the tick to pull out of the skin. Instead, it will irritate the tick and stimulate it to release additional saliva, increasing the chance of transmitting disease.  Or, in the case of matches, you may very well burn yourself!

Ticks can be removed from our canine and feline friends in the same manner. Please note that female and male dogs and cats have five to six pairs of nipples on their chest and belly, and they can have dark pigmentation, causing them to possibly resemble ticks. A tick will have legs; nipples will not!  Please do not pull off your pet’s nipples thinking they are ticks!  (We have seen this happen.)

Better yet, prevent ticks on your pets in the first place. There are several good, monthly topical preventatives that can be used, such as Frontline. Never use a product labelled for dogs on a cat, as this can cause a serious and potentially life-threatening toxicity!  For the same reason, it is also best to avoid generic products, such as Hartz and Sergeant’s, even if they are labeled for cats.  Frontline Top Spot can now be purchased over the counter and is much safer. If you would like the latest and greatest for your cat, we carry Frontline Plus at our clinic.

We hope that you’ve learned a lot about icky ticks in this article.  If you ever have any questions about ticks or preventatives, please give us a call.  Until next time, be safe and well as we head into summer!  =^_^=