There are many different tick species found throughout the world, but the most common ticks found in New Jersey that pose a threat to us and our pets include the deer tick (also known as the blacklegged tick), American dog tick, and the lone star tick. Ticks are most active from spring to fall, but a few warm days during the winter can cause them to emerge. Ticks only spread disease if they have ingested the pathogens from a previously infected host and pass it on when they feed again. Many tick-borne illnesses have similar symptoms, and It is possible to be infected by multiple tick-borne illnesses at the same time.
Diseases and Symptoms in Dogs
The most well known tick-borne illness is lyme disease, transmitted by deer ticks. The infected deer tick must be attached for 36-48 hours in order to infect its host. Symptoms of lyme disease include: difficulty walking, joint pain, swollen joints warm to the touch, loss of appetite, fever, lethargy, and enlarged lymph nodes.
Another tick-borne illness transmitted by deer ticks is anaplasmosis. The infected tick must be attached for 12-24 hours to transmit the disease. Symptoms of anaplasmosis are very similar to lyme: joint pain similar to arthritis, high fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and neurological symptoms that can cause seizures and neck pain (rare).
Ehrlichiosis is an especially dangerous disease transmitted by the lone star tick. This disease has three phases; acute, subacute, and chronic. Acute symptoms appear within 1-3 weeks after exposure and include: fever, poor appetite, lethargy, enlarged lymph nodes, low platelet count, and abnormal bruising and bleeding. After the acute phase the infected dog will move into the subacute phase, where most dogs appear to get better but test results may show abnormally elevated immune proteins and a low platelet count. Some dogs never progress out of this phase, but others will enter the chronic phase. Symptoms of the chronic phase are similar to those of the acute phase, but become harder to treat the longer the disease progresses and can ultimately end in death.
American dog ticks are often considered the most harmless tick out of the three species, but they are capable of transmitting rocky mountain spotted fever. Symptoms of this disease include: lethargy, loss of appetite, blood in urine, arrhythmia, discolored spots on the skin, loss of coordination, swelling of the limbs, swollen lymph nodes, and sudden bleeding from the nose or in stools. If rocky mountain spotted fever isn’t treated soon enough or at all, it can cause permanent damage or result in death.
Always talk to your vet about tick preventatives and consider using what your vet recommends. Also consider vaccinating your dog against lyme disease. If you are looking for more natural options, the most effective preventative is 2-undecanone, which is an oil derived from the stem and leaves of tomato plants that repels deer and lone star ticks. It is also the only oil that the EPA found effective. Other oils that some people have found effective are garlic oil, nootkatone (derived from Alaska yellow cedar trees, some herbs, and citrus fruits), and a mixture of rosemary, lemongrass, cedar, peppermint, thyme, and geraniol essential oils. All oils mentioned are safe to apply topically to your dog and to spray on your lawn/tick infested areas. Always keep a close eye on your dog to watch for changes in behavior and appetite, which are generally the first signs of a tick-borne illness. It is also very important to check for ticks daily.
Ticks are arachnids meaning they have 8 legs, however at the very beginning of their lifecycle they have 6 legs. Unlike most other arachnids, they don’t have a thorax (middle section). Their body parts consist of the capitulum (mouthparts), scutum (hard shield on back of tick), and body (the part that gets enlarged). The scutum is hard and does not enlarge with the ticks body, and provides cruicial information about differentiating tick species and sex. The scutum of a male tick covers the entire body, and male ticks usually do not feed.
Deer tick: The scutum of a deer tick is solid in color, whereas on other ticks it is patterned. Adult female deer ticks have a very dark scutum with a body that is lighter and red in color. Adult males appear mostly solid black or dark brown. When engorged, the tick will be more of a rust or red-brown color whereas other species will be pale gray or green-gray. When comparing engorged ticks, the color and pattern of the scutum will help identify the species. The deer tick is the smallest tick, about half the size of the dog tick — both in pre-fed state and engorged. The capitulum can also help with identifying because it is much longer on deer ticks than other common ticks.
American dog tick: American dog ticks are very large in size, and can be easily identified by their brown and red dotted bodies and their decorated scutum. Their scutum is generally lighter in color than their bodies, which is an easy way to differentiate them from deer ticks, along with their shorter capitulum. Adult males are usually lighter in color than females.
Lone star tick: Lone star ticks are very round and red in color. Adult females can be easily differentiated from other species due to the single white dot on the scutum. Adult males are more of a dark brown and sometimes have patches of red, and generally do not have the white dot. The scutum is close in color to the body, making it easy to differentiate the species from dog and deer ticks, which both feature high contrast between the two parts. The size of these ticks is in between the dog and deer tick.
Removal and Disposal
There are many products that are made for removing ticks, but if you don’t have access to these, then a pair of pointy tweezers will work. Whichever tool you are using, make sure it is as close to the skin as possible, and try to grab the tick’s head. Pulling straight up using a slow and firm force is best. Avoid jerking and twisting which can cause the mouthparts to break off and stay in the skin. If this happens, try and get them out with the pointy tweezers. If you can’t get them out don’t worry, the skin should heal on its own but keep an eye out for signs of infection. Avoid common “remedies” you may have heard of such as covering the tick with petroleum jelly, nailpolish, or using heat to get it to detach. The goal is to get the tick out as quickly and cleanly as possible, and to avoid letting it detach on its own. After removal, this is when it’s easiest to identify the species. The tick can be sealed in a plastic bag or tape for easy viewing. If you can’t identify it and want someone else to, or if you want to send it out to get tested, the tightly sealed tick can be placed in the freezer to keep it alive but inactive. To kill the tick, it can be drowned in alcohol or soapy water, flushed, or sealed up tightly and thrown away.