Some of you may know this about me, but I love fall and I hate ticks. Unfortunately, fall brings a whole new vigor to ticks. I can balance these two things out because I love being in nature without sweating and bugs that much. However, I am very vigilant about preventing ticks on my dogs and checking myself.
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 before the cold. Ticks are for fall blood the way Americans are for pumpkin spice. “They hibernate”, but in a less sleepy way than I wish. This isn’t even a perfect term, because any day that it’s above 36 degrees and ticks aren’t buried in snow they can be out and about. Essentially they just quiet down a little. That means 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. I actually have a chart for each winter month and which days were warm enough for ticks last year. Sadly (or great for my clients) because we are curbside I haven’t gotten a chance to show it to everyone.
If ticks are unable to get a blood meal in the fall, they will usually die during the winter. However, between deer, moose, mice, dogs, and humans this rarely happens. The very lucky ticks find a deer, moose, or another 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 gross so be prepared. 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 cemented to the skin during feeding. Not only that, but they also inject something like novocaine so that you don’t feel them there. So to sum that up, a tick cuts a hole in you, numbs the area, cements themselves 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. When you get home, run a lint roller over your dog to help stick any roaming ticks.
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 and can burn. 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 only thing about ticks that isn’t horrifying 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 (google that picture) of when they feel vibrations, so they can easily grab on to anything passing by.
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 and one even covers heartworm too. 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.