While almost every season can be tick season in Canada, March is the time of year to talk about early spring exposure to ticks and what we can do as pet parents to protect ourselves and our animals against these parasites and the diseases they may carry.
As a dog and cat mom I follow this topic closely and as an Ontarian I know the risk of exposure is higher as tick season can actually be year-round due to our fluctuating seasonal temperatures. Also since 2009, tick expansion has been documented thoroughly across Ontario. By this year 2020 tick populations are projected to include all of southern Ontario and will reach as far north as Sudbury. Visit tickmaps.ca to access currents tick risks, expansion, and confirmed populations in your area today.
Side Note: I’ll be including a lot of detailed research for this blog post so for speed readers I’ve highlighted summary statements in bold.
In Ontario, currently identified risk areas for Lyme disease are available here. In Niagara, black-legged ticks have often been found in the Wainfleet bog, Mud Lake in Port Colborne and 12 Mile Creek Trail in St. Catharines.
Seven specific locations in Ontario (all known endemic) are Point Pelee National Park, Rondeau Provincial Park, Turkey Point Provincial Park, and Long Point Peninsula including Long Point Provincial Park and the National Wildlife area (all on the north shore of Lake Erie), Wainfleet bog region near Welland on the Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward Point in Prince Edward County, and parts of the Thousand Islands National Park.
It’s still the case that nation- & province-wide, about 1 in 5 black-legged ticks carry Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme Disease). But in certain areas where these ticks have been established for a number of years, as many as 40% of them carry Borrelia. (The longer ticks are established in an area, the higher the level of disease in those tick populations. Gananoque, Kenora District, & Wainfleet Bog have some of the highest level of disease in their tick populations.)
Here’s what you should know as a pet owner…
WHICH TICK CARRIES LYME DISEASE?
The black-legged deer tick is the only species of ticks to carry the Lyme Disease among other diseases such as Anaplasmosis. They’re very small and can be hard to see, are usually found in forested areas, are active in early spring and late fall, and have no white markings on the large part of their bodies.
American Dog Ticks, the most common tick found in the Niagara region, does NOT carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease but may transmit other diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. It’s about the size of an apple seed and reddish brown in colour, active in the spring and summer, and usually have white markings or silver-coloured spots.
And lastly, the Lone Star Tick, which is rarely seen in the Niagara region but can be transported on migrating birds, does NOT carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease but may transmit other diseases such as Babesiosis. About the size of an apple seed and reddish brown in colour, the Lone Star Tick is active in the spring and summer. Female Lone Star ticks have a silvery-white spot or “lone star” on their back while adult males have white spots around their back.
For help identifying ticks use this handy Tick ID Decision Tree provided by Merck Animal Health.
For a comparison of sizes of ticks between life stages see image below.
WHEN IS TICK SEASON?
Tick activity is temperature-driven, not seasonal. So ticks can be active in every season, even in the winter. Pet parents should be aware that tick control in the spring is important even though it might feel too cold for parasites to be out. Adult blacklegged ticks begin searching for hosts to feed on when the temperature reaches 4℃ or higher, though studies exist which demonstrate activity can occur even at temperatures lower than this.
The questing activity of ticks is influenced by day length. Ticks begin questing as the days get longer in the spring and can be found in areas with long grass and tree cover. They continue questing into the summer months. With each maturity stage ticks continue to seek new hosts well into the summer season. However they are less active in the summer as they prefer cooler temperatures. Ticks have a 2-year life cycle and mostly quest around countrysides.
Peak activity of ticks actually occurs in the fall season. Late September to mid-December are ideal feeding times for adult ticks. Most pet parents I tell this to are surprised, assuming that risks decrease in cooler temperatures but the opposite is true. The fall is when adult ticks are most active as cool temperatures are ideal for them. So extended tick protection throughout the fall season is a must for pet parents.
As for the winter months, ticks can survive when temperatures are milder. Adult ticks that are unable to find a host to feed on in the fall enter a resting phase when very cold temperatures and thick snow prevent them from questing for a host. However, if during the winter months temperatures rise to 4℃ and above, adult ticks are able to become active again, even when there is still snow on the ground. So while protection methods may be relaxed, remaining aware of weather changes along with regular checks are recommended during the colder months.
HOW OFTEN AND WHERE SHOULD I CHECK FOR TICKS?
Check pets daily for ticks if coming in from the outdoors where ticks can be found, and promptly remove any attached ticks with tweezers. Owners should be made aware that ticks can be as small as a poppy seed.
Ticks are often found around the head, neck, ears and paws. But always check the entire body including under legs, arms and tails.
Starting at your pet’s head, use your fingers like a comb and run your hands over your pet’s body. You are feeling for lumps or bumps you previously did not notice. Make sure to check under your pet’s collar, inside the groin area, and under your pet’s front legs. It’s also important to examine under your pet’s tail and between his toes. Check your pet’s ears thoroughly looking inside and out.
It can take as little as 24 hours for the black-legged tick to transmit the bacterium that causes Lyme disease if it’s carrying it, so the sooner you remove any ticks, the better.
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THE LYME DISEASE VACCINES?
Available Lyme vaccines are effective for the entire year when combined with regular tick checks and using preventive products. Vaccines are not recommended for all dogs unless exposure risks are high. The ACVIM (American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine) believes the use of Lyme vaccines still is controversial and most do not administer them. But they still recommend screening all dogs in endemic or emerging areas of North America with an approved qualitative serological test. Using regular tick control with a product that repels or rapidly kills ticks during feeding is strongly recommended.
DO I NEED TO VACCINATE MY CAT?
At this time, the risk of tick-borne illness in cats remains very low in Canada. However, owners are increasingly asking if there is a way to prevent ticks on their outdoor cats. As there is now a labeled flea and tick control product for cats, we will be able to give a recommendation which will put our clients at ease (preventing ticks) while also preventing fleas, which are much more likely to actually cause clinical illness in their cat.
I FOUND A TICK ON MY PET, WHAT DO I DO NOW?
Using clean tweezers, grasp the head as close to the skin as possible and slowly pull straight out. Try not to twist or crush the tick. If the mouthparts break off and remain in the skin, remove them with tweezers or, if you are unable to remove them easily, leave them alone and let the skin heal. Wash the bite area with soap and water, or alcohol-based sanitizer.
NEVER try to burn a tick with a match or a candle, or cover it with petroleum jelly, nail polish, perfume or alcohol—all potentially dangerous things to do.
If you find a tick on your dog, run a quick blood test to check for exposure to disease. Try to save the tick in a clear, dry, sealed container or double Ziploc bags and record the date and location of the bite. Store the container for up to 10 days in the refrigerator, for live ticks or the freezer, for dead ticks. Ticks can be disposed of in household garbage once they are dead, and they can be killed by drowning them in rubbing alcohol or by freezing for several hours.
If you think the tick is blacklegged or you cannot identify the tick, the Ontario Veterinary College launched the Pet Tick Tracker to help monitor changes in tick populations. Through this online tool, Ontario pet owners can submit reports of tick findings.
For Niagara residents, a list of locations to submit the tick for testing/identification can be found here. There is no cost for tick identification.
IN A NUTSHELL, WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF CONTRACTING LYME DISEASE FOR MYSELF AND MY PETS?
In 2019 there were less than 7 cases of Lyme disease reported for humans. Fewer than 5% of canines exposed to blacklegged ticks and approximately 3% of people exposed will develop Lyme disease. And there have been no reports of clinical Lyme disease in naturally-infected cats. In fact there is no evidence to suggest that companion animals increase an owner’s risk of Lyme disease. While pets may increase owner exposure to ticks (likely via shared exposure while walking), the evidence to date does not show a similar increase in risk for tick-borne disease in owners. And while pets may increase tick exposure, the ticks encountered likely do not carry Lyme Disease, such as the American dog tick. According to Public Health Ontario, there’s no evidence to support an increased risk of Lyme disease related to pet-ownership.
On average, about 1 in 5 black-legged ticks in Ontario carry the bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) that causes Lyme disease (less in some areas, more in others). (In areas such as Kingston & Gananoque, up to 40% of ticks are carrying the bacterium.) The vast majority of dogs that are exposed to Borrelia don’t get sick. In fact, only about 5% of dogs develop symptoms of Lyme disease: a lameness that shifts from one leg to another, fever, lethargy, & a loss of appetite. And they can be treated successfully with antibiotics. But left untreated, about 1% of those that get sick develop Lyme nephritis (an immune-mediated disease of the kidneys that’s often fatal).
CAN I SCREEN MY PETS FOR INFECTION AND IF TESTS RETURN POSITIVE WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THEM?
According to the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) the benefits of treating all dogs that test positive for infection include treatment of potential joint inflammation, treatment of possible co-infections and potential prevention of future disease. However, the list of drawbacks is quite long, including overuse of antibiotics, risk of adverse reactions to treatment and high owner cost (among others). Not all dogs are cleared of infection even after 1 month of antibiotics. Also immunity is not permanent, and treated dogs could still be reinfected.
Clinical signs don’t appear until 2 to 5 months after exposure and include fever, anorexia, depression, lethargy, sudden or recurrent lameness, joint swelling, myalgia, arthritis, and lymphadenopathy. Antibodies can be detected in dogs between 3 and 5 wk after exposure to infected ticks and serological tests can remain positive for months and even over a year after infection. Your veterinary should be able to identify, test and review the best possible treatment for your dog, IF required.
More than half of the panelists do not recommend treating asymptomatic dogs. But rather monitoring all B. burgdorferi positive dogs for proteinuria two to three times per year, and not treating dogs that are seropositive for B. burgdorferi, but otherwise healthy (no proteinuria).
Screening of healthy dogs is controversial because it can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment on the basis of a test that does not diagnose Lyme disease nor predict whether Lyme disease will ever occur; most seropositive dogs will never become ill with Lyme disease and do not need to be treated. Screening for abnormal quantities of protein should be part of every dog’s annual routine wellness examination and not done merely because of a positive test result. According to the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, in Ontario 2.3% of dogs tested for Lyme disease antibodies return positive results.
Ultimately as pet parents, awareness and prevention are the most vital opportunities to protect your pets from ticks and Lyme Disease. Use repellants, cover up, and check your dogs every day after being outdoors year-round.
Familiarize yourself with black-legged ticks for proper identification, and if you do find one on yourself or your pet, submit it for testing within 24 hours if possible (remember 1 in 40 species of ticks in Canada carry Lyme Disease – the Black-legged Deer Tick).
Only 1 in 5 of the black-legged ticks carry Lyme Disease. If the tick tests positive follow up with your veterinary to discuss your next steps. Testing your dog for infection can be done within 3-5 weeks after exposure but this should really just be included in their annual checkups for good measure.
And lastly, should both the tick and your dog test positive, symptoms won’t appear for 2-5 months after exposure, but remember fewer than 5% of infected dogs develop Lyme Disease while the majority exposed to Borrelia don’t get sick.
You can rest assured that chances are relatively slim but still possible for you or your dog to contract Lyme Disease from a tick here in Niagara. I truly hope this information helps relieve and empower you with the knowledge you need to protect your pet outdoors from ticks. Have an opinion? Leave me a comment below…