This is one of the most talked-about parasites addressed in our Clinic lately and for good reason! Pervasive, sneaky, and practically villainous, these bugs are technically part of the arachnid family, but these parasites aren’t your innocuous, household spider. Unlike mosquitoes, ticks are much hardier, surviving and remaining active throughout winter. In fact, these parasites will crawl from the undergrowth looking for a blood meal the moment temperatures reach 4°C.
Like mosquitoes, ticks transmit disease through blood exchanged from an infected animal to an uninfected animal. But ticks don’t just bite; they bury their entire barbed mouthparts into the skin and drink. It may be surprising to learn that tick bites often go unnoticed by the victim. Why? Tick saliva contains a local anesthetic, which eliminates the sensation of being bit, which is why you won’t likely see your pet paying any attention to a tick if they’re bitten. The saliva also contains a binding agent that acts almost like a cement on the skin, which is why ticks are difficult to remove and are able to remain fixed while they feed.
Ticks aren’t new to Canada but a few years ago they were only problematic to campers and hikers in cottage country and beyond. But ticks are closing in; expanding their territory by 40 square kilometres every year! That’s pretty impressive for a parasite no larger than a tic tac! So how do they get around? Hitchhiking on all types of wildlife, including birds, ticks are able to increase their geographical footprint very quickly. Also, warmer overall temperatures mean ticks are more active during periods we’d expect dormancy. While we used to see ticks only in grassy, leaf-covered forests, ticks are becoming more “urbanized” and are infecting animals in our neighbourhoods.
There are several species of ticks across Canada and, though many of them cause disease to humans and animals, the Ixodes scapularis (otherwise known as the blacklegged or deer tick) is the species most concerning in Southern Ontario. This tick is a known carrier of the bacteria causing Lyme disease, a systemic infection that may cause organ and tissue damage or even death. Sadly, much like heartworm disease, Lyme disease doesn’t often show signs until the infection overwhelms the body, making treatment complicated and increasing the likelihood of permanent damage or death. In our Clinic’s experience, the majority of positive cases are found early, during routine screening, which is why tick-borne disease screening should be conducted annually.
A person’s best defense against tick bites is wearing appropriate clothing and checking your body and hair for ticks after being outdoors. Our furry family members; however, are directly exposed to the environment, greatly increasing their risk of picking up these parasites. Ticks may decide to bite your fur family or they may choose to hitch a ride until they come across easier prey, like a human companion (because, hey, it’s a lot of work sifting through a thick coat of fur!). The GREAT news is there are now several tick preventions available, one of which causes ticks to die on contact with your furry family member. Contact us today to arrange for testing and to learn more about prevention options for your pet!