Ticks are one of those living organisms that are a true parasite. They require the blood of a host at three different times in their development in order to grow, mature and reproduce. Although ticks themselves cause little if any damage to the dog, the diseases they carry are very serious and can be fatal in some conditions.
Ticks are part of the same family as spiders, scorpions and mites, which is actually within the class Arachnida. There are two different types of ticks, those with soft bodies and those with hard shell-like bodies. Both types of ticks are considered to be ectoparasites, which means that they feed off a host but are external to the body. Stories of ticks burrowing into the brain or the spine are simply not true, however they will burrow down far enough into the skin to firmly attach and begin to ingest the blood of the host animal. There are only two visible sections to the tick's body besides the legs, the head and the body. The body is actually the storage for the blood and is capable of expanding many times its original size as the tick feeds.
Throughout the world there are 850 different known species of ticks and almost all parts of the world have some tick populations. Most ticks will feed of any type of mammal including dogs, cats, deer, all livestock varieties and most definitely off of humans. There are also a few species of ticks that can and will feed off of amphibians and reptiles. Birds can also get ticks, however this largely depends on the species of bird and if it ever enters the same habitat as the tick to allow the tick to attach. In some areas ticks become such a huge problem for wild animals such as moose, deer and elk that even these large mammals can become anemic due to blood loss. This seems to be a cyclic event that happens infrequently, however it is serious when it occurs, often weakening wild herds of these animals considerably.
The Life Of A Tick
Ticks have a much longer life than many people think. Most tick eggs are deposited by the female tick on the ground or around the base of foliage or grasses in the late spring to early fall. A single female tick can produce up to 3000 eggs, but this does depend on the specific species of tick.
Once on the ground the eggs sit dormant through the cold winter months. With the change in the ground temperature in the spring, the eggs hatch and six-legged larva emerge. The larva then crawls up a blade of grass or onto a low bush, waiting for an appropriate host animal to walk by. The larva at this time is very small and while they can be seen without magnification they are very easy to miss. Researchers often call this larva stage the "seed tick" since it is about the size and shape of a sesame seed.
The typical seed tick will attach to a small rodent, dog, cat or other mammal that passes by. The ticks are able to sense a host animal by heat, carbon dioxide and body humidity produced. While they cannot jump or fly or even crawl quickly, they can release the grass and grab onto the hair shaft of the host animal, working their way in towards the body. Once on the body the tick chews its way into the skin, submerging the mouth and sucking blood. The tick also expels saliva into the skin, which causes the typical red irritation seen around a tick bite. Dogs that are allergic to tick saliva can develop hot spots and may be prone to infections at the sites. Ticks take several days to feed and engorge, during this time they may also be passing harmful bacteria into your dog, resulting in disease such as:
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Once the seed tick has fed it releases from the host animal and falls back to the ground. Here it matures into the third stage of life, an eight legged nymph. Some ticks may take a year to make this transition and will be dormant over the winter months in cold climates. In the warm weather they again attach to a host and feed, falling off to mature to adults. The last part of the life cycle includes the adult tick attaching to another host and feeding. Male and female ticks then mate, with the males dying shortly after mating. The female falls to the ground in the summer or autumn, lays her eggs and then dies.
There is only one way to remove ticks from your dog or yourself. The first step is to part the hair and carefully note where the tick is burrowed into the skin. Using blunt ended tweezers or tick removers, grasp the head of the tick as close to the dog's skin as possible. Using a steady movement, pull the tick straight out, don't twist or turn as the head is likely to break off and stay in the dog, resulting in irritation and possible infection.
Once the tick is out submerge it in rubbing alcohol for at least 10 minutes. Ticks will not drown in water and if you drop them on the ground they will simply find another host and go on to reproduce. Never try to burn a tick off a dog or use Vaseline to attempt to smother the tick. These techniques actually increase the production of saliva by the tick and put your dog at greater risk.
Always carefully check your dog for ticks, paying particular attention to the hot areas of the body such as the ears, around the neck and between the pads of the feet. Routine grooming with a comb will remove ticks that are moving about on the body. Treating your dog with topical monthly flea treatments that also repel ticks is important, plus there are several commercially available herbal sprays and powders that are very effective.
Keep your yard mowed and avoid walking your dog through wooded and brushy areas where ticks are problematic. There are also vaccinations for some of the tick borne diseases, talk to your vet if you feel there is a concern or if your dog has been bitten by a tick and is now acting differently. Many of the bacteria that ticks carry take weeks or months to actually show signs of the disease in dogs and your vet may not make the connection unless you indicate ticks were an issue.