The East End has beautiful beaches, great agriculture, vibrant communities and some unwanted pests. Every summer at the Animal Hospitals at Bideawee in Westhampton, we get an abundance of questions about ticks and how to stop these pests from attaching themselves to our pets.
Although ticks aren’t the most loveable creatures on the East End, they just might be the hardiest. They’ve been around a long time, about 100 million years, long before there was an East End as we know it today. It is likely that with all the ticks that have survived they’ll still be living on the East End long after humans are extinct.
Ticks are sightless arachnids. They have eight legs and are closely related to scorpions, spiders and mites. Ticks have an evolved although seemingly rudimentary system for movement. They use their claws on the end of their eight legs, sort of like tweezers, to grab onto rough surfaces like trees, grasses and your clothing. When they awaken from their hibernation, hungry and ready to eat, ticks instinctively grab hold to rough surfaces and start climbing upward against the forces of gravity until they can’t go any further.
Sitting happily on the highest point they can reach, ticks wait contentedly, sometimes controlling their hunger for two years, until the sensors in their legs detect carbon dioxide and vibrations. When their sensors go off they know it’s time to eat. They aren’t picky eaters either. These parasites feed on the blood of their host and they’ll suck the blood of animals or humans with equal vigor.
Once they’ve found their meal ticket, they look for a mate. Male ticks will stay on the host for as long as possible, spending their days and nights alternately feeding and mating. It’s typical that after a few romantic interludes the male tick dies. Female ticks feed, procreate, become extremely swollen, and then drop off their food source to lay their 4,000+ eggs. After laying her 4,000+ eggs and continuing the family tree, the exhausted female tick dies.
Ticks come equipped from birth with a built-in spoon, fork and knife. The tick uses its fork and knife to dig a hole in the skin giving the tick access to the blood they need to survive. Once the tick breaks the skin it burrows into its host and inserts its spoon to feed. All the while the host isn’t aware of the tick because of the tick’s ability to secrete a topical anesthetic that allows the tick to do its dirty work undetected.
Ticks can ingest 200-600 times their weight! Their outer shell expands readily to accommodate the volume. Once it starts sucking blood the tick produces saliva which helps thin out the viscosity of the blood, making the meal flow faster. This blood feeds the tick while providing fuel to the bacteria living inside the tick. The tick continues to produce its blood-thinning saliva; some of the bacteria migrate out of the tick and into the host. This is how disease is spread. Different ticks host different diseases. We are all familiar with Lyme disease carried by the deer tick, but the American Dog Tick can carry Ehrlichia and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Both attack the blood cells of dogs and have been reported to cause disease in humans.
Protecting you and your dog from ticks takes diligence and insecticides! The CDC recommends avoidance (walk in the center of a trail), repellents (check with your vet to apply product safe for your animals), and surveillance (body and clothing checks). Showering and bathing your dog can reduce the risk of being bitten. Ticks are susceptible to desiccation and high heat, so tossing clothing in the dryer can kill any hitchhikers that haven’t found thier way to the flesh.
In addition to good tick control, your veterinarian may recommend you vaccinate your dog against Lyme disease.
Robin Brennen, DVM, is Chief of Veterinary Services and VP of Program Operations for Bideawee, www.Bideawee.org. [/expand]