So, it has been established that I love the fall. I love hiking through the foliage, I love being outside without being hot (this last weekend excluded!), I love almost everything about it. What I hate, however, are fleas and ticks. We have fewer ticks for a while, but they make a resurgence in the fall. Fleas try to move into your house when it gets cold, and nobody needs that. So, I’ll digress from my love of fall to talk about the few things I hate about it.
Ticks are very active in the fall because they are looking for one last blood meal before they settle in for the winter. They want to get food in before the cold (imagine me with apple cider donuts.) “They hibernate,” but in a less sleepy way than I’d like. This isn’t even a perfectly correct term, because any day that is it above 36 degrees and ticks aren’t buried in snow they can be out and about. Essentially, they just quiet down some. That means that these last few years have ticks out every single month. Even on days that are below zero, windy and almost uninhabitable, the ticks are just hanging out and waiting for warmer times. If ticks are unable to get a blood meal, they will usually die during the winter. However, between deer, moose, mice, dogs and YOU, this rarely happens. The very lucky ticks find a deer, moose or other wild animal to cuddle on for these cold stretches.
So, while we may find a hike at 50 degrees refreshing and bug-free, the possibility of ticks is still alive and well as long as we aren’t trudging through snow. However, the cooler temperatures are a signal to ticks that they must feed soon. Instead of dying like those pesky mosquitos they get extra aggressive.
Here is where things get graphic. Ticks actually don’t even bite, they drill a small hole in the skin and then insert their mouthpiece for feeding. They inject a substance that stops blood from clotting, and often hang out undetected until they are done feeding and drop off. Many also inject a substance that keeps them almost cemented to the skin during feeding. Not only that, they inject something like a pain-killer so that you don’t feel them there. So, to sum that up, a tick cuts a hole in you, numbs the area, cements themself to you and keeps your blood from clotting (or your pet’s) while they gleefully spread diseases.
Unlike the spring, there are more adults feeding in the fall than nymphs. This means that they are slightly bigger and a little bit easier to see. However, if you have a dog with longer hair, a thick undercoat, or dark-colored hair, it can be very difficult to see even the adults. I warn clients never to rely on visualizing ticks. Though seeing and removing them is helpful, it should not be the only defense.
If you do see a tick attached, it is best to remove them with tweezers or a tick remover as close to the skin as possible. Grasp firmly right at the skin surface, then pull away. Clean the area with a disinfectant. Applying heat or detergent to the tick may kill them, but gives them more time to continue spreading disease in their dying moments. The most reliable, fastest and best way to remove a tick is mechanically. If they are still running, you can nab them with a piece of tape or a lint roller. However, since we know as humans that we aren’t perfect, pets should always have a preventative that works to kill the ticks we miss.
The one and only good thing about ticks (and it isn’t really that good) is that they cannot jump or fly. This means that they have to actually brush against you or a pet to get on you. The bad news is that unless you are walking in a parking lot, this isn’t very hard. They crawl from blades of grass to our pets or our feet with ease. They actually stand with their little front legs waving in anticipation when they feel vibrations, so they can easily grab on to anything passing by.
The bad thing about ticks? Well, where do I start? First, they spread three very common diseases to our pets: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis. Second, they do not discriminate between humans and animals. The same tick that spreads the Lyme organism to your dog will then spread it to you. When a tick is attached to your pet, they are that much more likely to then attach to you. If a tick isn’t killed while feeding on your dog or cat, they are alive and well and looking for you. Looking may be a strong word, but they are waving their legs and feeling for your vibrations.
The good thing is that we do have several measures of prevention for our pets. There are effective collars for dogs and cats that last eight months (or six for big swimmers), topical protection monthly, and chewable pills that treat ticks in dogs for either one or three months. These mean that when a tick attaches to our pet, they then die before they get a chance to feed on us. That is a huge benefit, but these products also kill ticks in almost all cases before they are attached long enough to transmit disease. Finally, these tick products also work against fleas. Each product can be better or worse for certain situations, so it is always best to speak to your veterinarian for the best choice.
Just a few short years ago I didn’t use or strictly recommend year-round prevention. All that has changed. If all you can see is snow, ticks will not be able to attach from grass or trees. However, during the January thaw or when we haven’t gotten an adequate snow cover, it only needs to be barely above freezing for ticks to be active. This happens almost monthly now throughout the year, so there is no safe time to stop. We saw a huge surge in Lyme exposure the last two falls when owners stopped prevention while we continued to have warm-enough weather. If you are unsure, always contact your veterinarian for guidance.