Preventing Spring Fever: Tick Season

By Melissa Jo Peltier

It has been a grueling winter here on the East Coast…achingly cold, dark days, bleak gray skies, and several furious snowstorms – one left my yard with three trees down, including my favorite bird-feeder tree, which sadly can’t be replanted.
I feel like we’ve been hibernating, but there’s good news on the horizon.  Despite an early April mini-storm – which left 4 inches of powder on the rooftops of our Hudson Valley town – the robins are waiting patiently in the trees to get back to their worm hunts, and we are finally beginning to feel the soft air and smell the sweet and earthy scents of springtime.

I hike with my dog Frannie in the woods at least three days a week through all four seasons, yet spring brings with it unique health and safety concerns for canines. Because our house backs up on a deep woods teeming with deer, foxes, raccoons and other critters, we go off-trail a lot, poking through leaves, fallen trees and tall grasses – in other words, tick central.  We live in an area where Lyme disease is rampant, so tick protection is always our first concern as the weather begins to warm.

TICK LIFE CYCLES

Ticks have been proliferating on the East Coast for decades now, spreading serious illnesses like Lyme disease in animals and humans at a greater rate every year.  Many pets and humans in our area have become debilitated and even died from Lyme complications.

Contrary to popular belief, ticks don’t die out in the winter.  Most varieties go dormant, crawling under piles of fallen leaves or burrowing in the earth, where layers of snow only serve to insulate them from the frost above. When the warm ground softens, those adult ticks wake up starving and aggressively seek hosts to feed on, attaching themselves to leaves or tall grass, where just a brush by you or your dog allows them to grab – or jump – on to fur or skin.

MEDICAL PREVENTION

If you live in an area where Lyme-spreading ticks are prevalent, don’t be fooled by lingering cool weather or still-bare trees: now is the time to protect your dog.  How you do it should be a decision you make with your veterinarian.  He or she can tell you your options:  flea and tick collars, monthly oral and topical preventatives, and/or the Lyme vaccine and annual boosters, which are between 60-86% effective, but not recommended for all dogs. The vaccine also doesn’t prevent the tick from biting your dog, or from transmitting other tick-borne illnesses like ehrlichia, Rocky Mountains Spotted Fever or babesiosis.  Ask thorough questions about the pros and cons – and possible risks – of any chemical or pharmaceutical prevention method.

OTHER PRECAUTIONS

The best method for preventing ticks, of course, is to stay on manmade paths or trails and avoid brushing against branches, leaves, tall grasses and other flora along the way.  But what fun is that?   I don’t believe in chemical topical sprays, so if we’re going deep into the woods, I rub Frannie’s coat with human-edible grade, untreated Diatomaceous earth, a remarkable, all-natural and non-toxic powder made from tiny fossilized water plants.  The crystals in the powder have a deadly effective on insects, hooking on to them and drying them up from the inside out.  Don’t use the non-edible grade version, however (often used as bug prevention by gardeners)…and neither you nor your dog should breathe in the powder when airborne, as it can temporarily irriate the respiratory system.  I rub the powder on my own arms, legs and feet, too.  Your vet may know of other natural prevention methods.

CHECKING FOR TICKS

No matter how much you prepare, ticks are sneaky little grifters, so after every outing, check your dog’s skin and fur thoroughly.   I hate this part, since most of Frannie’s coat is black and a great place for a tick to hide, although thanks to our prevention regime, in nearly three years, I’ve only found one!   If you do find a tick, you’ll need to remove it immediately.  www.PetMD.com has published a step by step method on their website:  https://www.petmd.com/dog/parasites/how-to-remove-a-tick-from-dog-cat.   Make sure to have a separate tick removal kit handy among your dog’s medical supplies.

IF YOUR DOG IS BITTEN

A bite doesn’t necessarily mean infection, since it takes 24-48 hours of feeding for the tick to transmit disease, which is why regular tick checks are vital.  But know the symptoms of Lyme disease and watch for them. Just as with humans, Lyme disease responds best to treatment when caught early.   Though these symptoms may have a variety of causes, watch out for:

  • Recurring lameness
  • Swollen joints and glands
  • Stiffness
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing

If you notice any of these symptoms, call your vet and have your dog tested for lyme and other tick-borne diseases, so she can get started on a treatment protocol right away.

The every-lengthening “tick season” shouldn’t scare you into keeping your dog from enjoying the great outdoors.  By making tick prevention and vigilance a part of your regular routine, you can revel in the fresh air and flowers of spring with your healthy best friend at your side.

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