Ticks occupy a special place in our world, and it’s not a good place. The degree of revulsion they trigger in most people is spectacular. I can have the cutest, happiest puppy wagging his tail on the exam table. But if I find one little tick, clients’ faces reflexively contort in ways that would suggest they’ve been tazed. And I concede—ticks are pretty gross. It’s hard to take a balloon full of fresh blood, give it eight legs, and be pleased with the outcome. But a lot of the fear surrounding them has more to do with folklore than fact.
Ticks do spread infections like Lyme Disease, Ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Luckily, they usually need to be attached for at least 24 hours before they’re able to transmit anything, which gives you a window to search your pet for ticks and remove them before they pose a serious threat.
Ticks are not a medical emergency, nor do they require special expertise to remove, so don’t waste your time and money running to the hospital upon spotting one. Removing a tick is as simple as plucking it off. Using a pair of narrow-tipped tweezers, grab it as close to the skin as you can, and pull upwards in one slow and steady motion. If you can yank a weed from your garden, you have the skill set for removing a tick from your pet.
You’ve probably heard nonsense about smothering ticks with ointment or burning them off with matches. In the best case scenario, you risk wasting time; in the worst, you risk setting your cat on fire. Ticks are not supernatural beings, and do not require arcane rituals to destroy. Pluck ’em and toss ’em.
If you can easily see that a piece was left behind, try to remove it with your tweezers. But if you can’t get it, just leave it be. Animals’ bodies have a way of pushing these things out in a day or two, like a disgusting splinter. It’s not odd to see a welt there, and a topical antibiotic ointment can help prevent local infection until it heals. If the swelling seems unusually severe or lasts more than a few days, have your veterinarian take a look, but the vast majority can just be monitored at home.
Preventative tick medications help limit exposure, but I have yet to see one that works perfectly, so still check your pet for stragglers. Pet owners are often surprised by a diagnosis of tick-borne illness because they’d never seen a tick on their pet before. Unfortunately, ticks are small, and you’re not going to find every one. They can hide in strange places—between toes and under tails—and a few are bound to slip past your defense. I recommend annually screening dogs for the most common tick-borne infections. If one is identified, it is usually prior to the development of symptoms, and dogs can be appropriately treated before they even have the chance to get sick. Tick-borne diseases are comparatively less common in cats, and they’re usually not tested unless there’s reason to suspect infection.
Ticks may be nasty little things, but taking care of them is no big trick. Just stay vigilant, and keep those tweezers handy.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.