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Ticks on companion animals

Ticks are one of the most common ectoparasites of companion animals. All active stages (larva, nymph, adult) are blood feeders and adults require blood for sperm or egg production. Following their blood meal, adult females drop off the host and die after they have laid up to 3.000 eggs.

Most ticks seek hosts by crawling up the stems of grass or perch on the edges of leaves on the ground in a typical posture with the front legs extended (a behavior called questing). Others are so-called nest parasites, questing in sheltered environments. Carbon dioxide as well as heat and movement serve as stimuli for the questing behavior. As soon as a suitable host brushes against their extended front legs, the questing tick climbs on to its body, holds on tight, bores into the skin and begins to draw tissue fluids such as blood.

Tick species

Morphology of A Castor bean tick Ixodes ricinus; B Black-legged deer tick Ixodes scapularis (dammini); C Brown dog tick Rhipicephalus sanguineus; D American dog tick Dermacentor variabilis.

Ticks belong to the arachnid family (classification: phylum Arthropoda, class Arachnida). Companion animals are affected by a number of tick species varying considerably in terms of their occurrence, choice of host, length of the life cycle, and role as vectors for diseases. The most commonly identified species belong to the Ixodes, Rhipicephalus and Dermacentor genera such as:

  • Ixodes ricinus, the castor bean tick, most widely distributed in Europe,
  • Ixodes scapularis (dammini), the black-legged deer tick, most widely distributed in North America,
  • Rhipicephalus sanguineus, the brown dog tick, distributed all over the world,
  • Dermacentor variabilis, the American dog tick, most widely distributed in North America.

The tick life cycle

All tick species develop via four stages: the embryonated egg, followed by the three active stages, the larva, one or more nymphal stages, and the adult. Sexual dimorphism is evident only in the adult stage.In most species, each active stage seeks a new host, feeds, and drops off to develop in the natural environment (3-host life cycle). The length of the life cycle can vary considerably, from less than six months for Rhipicephalus genera up to three years for Ixodes genera.

Harmful effects of tick infestation

A tick bite not only causes a localized infection, it can also serve as the portal through which serious diseases are transmitted. These can have a severe impact on the animal's well being. Ticks can transmit disease agents such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. The most harmful effects are:

  • Transmission of Lyme disease
  • Transmission of Babesiosis
  • Transmission of Ehrlichiosis
  • Transmission of tick-borne encephalitis (TBE)
  • Tick paralysis

Tick prevention and control

In general, allowing companion animals to roam freely is not recommended. Keep dogs and cats tied or restricted to a mowed area. If a tick should be found in the animal's coat, it can be removed correctly with special tick tweezers. Grasp the tick as closely to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. It's best to let your veterinarian show you how this is done.

Moreover, the use of tick collars may prevent tick infestation of the animal for months. Other formulations such as dips, powders, and sprays containing acaricide substances are available. Spot-on products are most effective for tick prevention and control.

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