March might not seem like an appropriate time to talk about ticks, but you'll feel differently after you read this article. We're going to bust some tick myths and hopefully help protect you and your pets from the "blood-sucking" arachnids. *Warning: Pictures of ticks follow.*
Myth #1: Ticks are dormant in the winter
While it is true ticks are most prevalent during the warmer months, they are still active during the winter. Ticks are usually buried under the ice and snow until those longed for warm, sunny winter days. As the snow melts, they are "freed" and find their way to animals enjoying the warmer winter weather, you and your pet for example. Hunters have even been known to stumble through tick nests and came away covered with hundreds of tick larva. Ticks pose a greater risk during the winter because their bites are painless and we are less likely to find them because we aren't actively looking for them. This allows them to be attached for a longer period of time and increases the chance of transferring a tick-borne illness.
Myth #2: Ticks smell your blood.
Ticks are often believed to have the ability to smell blood, like a shark. Like a tiny eight-legged land shark. Thankfully, this is not true, but the truth isn't much better. Ticks can smell CO2, one of the by-products of respiration. Ticks can literally smell you breathe. Upon second thought, we aren't sure the truth is ANY better than the myth.
Myth #3: Lyme infections have a distinct bulls-eye rash.
This one is more of a half-truth than a full-on myth and isn't technically about ticks. Many humans will develop the trademark bulls-eye rash, but not every human does. Animals will rarely, if ever, develop the telltale rings. Aside from possible redness and irritation at the site of tick attachment, there aren't any signs of Lyme infection that present on the skin. Joint swelling and pain, fever, loss of appetite, and lethargy are the most common symptoms. If pets have similar symptoms and a veterinarian determines a plausible case for infection upon examination, the diagnosis can be confirmed with a blood test. Symptoms for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses can range from very mild to severe with some pets being asymptomatic.
Myth #4: Ticks are only a threat while camping or hiking.
The inference of this myth is ticks are only a threat when adventuring to the deep woods, "roughing it" in the remote, unsettled areas of the world, or traversing through natural preserves rarely touched by humans. Ticks prefer shady, moist areas while clinging to shrubs, bushes, grasses, and weeds within two feet of the ground. They are sometimes found in lawns and gardens near the woods or old stone walls. Ticks can sometimes be transferred in dirt and mulch to areas they aren't naturally found. Moral: you aren't safe just because you aren't under trees. No one is safe.
Myth #5: Use flames, alcohol, or other liquids to remove ticks.
Ticks are infamous for their ability to burrow into the skin of their hosts and attach themselves firmly for days at a time. Many "old wives' tales" exist on how to remove a tick, but most methods could actually make the situation worse. If you try to burn a tick off, it could cause them to burrow deeper as they try to flee the flame and you also risk burning your pet and yourself. Using soap or alcohol could also cause the tick to burrow deeper if it becomes irritated by the liquid. The most effective way to remove a tick before it is ready is to grip it tightly with a pair of tweezers or tick removal tool just above the skin and pull with even pressure. Don't pull too quickly to minimize the chance of the head detaching and staying lodged in their skin. If this does happen, don't panic, there is very little risk of a serious problem. Watch the area for redness, swelling, or discharge.
Myth #6: I'll see them before they can bite.
The most dangerous ticks come in the smallest packages. It's true adult ticks look scary and gross, but this is a benefit to us because we can see them. It's common for us to hear, "We don't need prevention because I check my dog whenever they come in from outside." This is a good practice, but nymph ticks are as small as a poppy-seed (see above photos if you aren't eating a muffin). This can make it incredibly easy to miss one which is all it takes to transfer a tick-borne illness. Tick prevention requires a tick to bite its host before it can kill the tick, but should kill it before it is possible for bacteria to transfer between the tick and the host. For dogs, we recommend giving flea & tick prevention and vaccinating for Lyme disease because neither protection is 100% effective, but they are both better than nothing.
Hopefully you feel more prepared to handle the scourge called ticks. If not, at least you have a few tick tidbits for your next garden party. Don't forget to sweep your yard for ticks beforehand.
Bonus tick tidbit: There have been cases of spontaneous red meat allergies caused by bites from the Lone Star tick found in the southern and eastern United States. Seriously, ticks, why do you have to ruin everything?!