Let’s say you’re snuggled up on the couch with your beloved pet and gently stroking their soft silky fur. Suddenly, you come across a small hard knot. Your hand stills and your mind races. Could that small knot be a tick?

If it is, should you:

  • A: Pull it off with your fingers
    B: Get your spouse or significant other
    C: Calmly remove the tick with tweezers
    D: Evacuate and burn down the house

If you answered anything but “C,” check out this Safe Harbor Animal Hospital guide that provides 5 simple steps for safely removing a tick from your pet.

How ticks affect your pet

Ticks are hardy parasites that can transmit serious diseases to your furry pal. The most problematic tick species in South Carolina are the blacklegged, or deer, tick, Lone-star tick, American dog tick, and the brown dog tick. The diseases they can potentially spread to your pet include:

  • Lyme disease — Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, and is transmitted by the blacklegged tick. Signs include lethargy, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and a shifting limb lameness. Kidney dysfunction may occur in severe cases.
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) — RMSF is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia rickettsii, and is transmitted by the American dog tick and the brown dog tick. Signs can be similar to those seen in Lyme disease, but may also include coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, facial or limb swelling, and nosebleeds. Neurologic signs may occur in severe cases.
  • Ehrlichiosis — Ehrlichiosis is most commonly caused by Ehrlichia canis, and is transmitted by the brown dog tick and the Lone star tick. Affected pets may exhibit signs including fever, swollen lymph nodes, respiratory distress, weight loss, bleeding disorders, and neurologic problems. 
  • Tick paralysis — Female ticks can produce a neurotoxin that causes an ascending paralysis. The affected pet initially loses the ability to use their hind limbs, and the paralysis eventually involves their front limbs and may potentially interfere with their ability to breathe. 

Lyme disease, RMSF, and Ehrlichiosis typically respond to a particular antibiotic class, but treatment can be prolonged and signs may recur when treatment is stopped. The primary treatment for tick paralysis is removing the tick. Supportive care is necessary until the paralysis resolves.

Protect your pet from ticks

You can take steps to prevent your pet’s tick exposure and protect them from disease transmission. Tips include:

  • Providing protection — Every pet should receive a veterinary-approved tick preventative year-round. These products don’t prevent ticks from biting your pet, but they do prevent them from completing their blood meal and transmitting diseases.
  • Check your pet for ticks — Check your pet from nose to tail, looking for arachnid hitchhikers, especially if your pet has recently been in wooded or grassy areas. Pay close attention to body areas where ticks like to hide, such as along the eyelids, inside the ears, between the toes, under the forearms, in the groin and abdominal area, and around the rectum.
  • Remove ticks from your pet promptly — If you find a tick on your pet, remove the parasite as soon as possible. Ticks typically need at least 24 hours to transmit disease, so prompt removal can protect your four-legged friend from illness.
  • Check yourself for ticks — Ticks can easily hitch a ride on your clothing and find their way indoors where they can target your pet. Check your clothing after outings to ensure you have no unwanted passengers. 
  • Reduce ticks around your home — Landscaping techniques can reduce tick populations around your home. Keep your grass mown short, clear tall weeds around your lawn, and place a three foot wide barrier using wood chips or gravel between your yard and wooded areas. 

Steps to remove a tick from your pet

First impressions are everything, especially with pets. If you immediately scream, panic, or start frantically pinching and pulling at your pet’s hair, your four-legged companion will become equally stressed and anxious, and your chances of relocating and removing the tick will be fewer. Other steps include:

  • Ensure the lump on your pet is actually a tick — Mistaken identity is common, so before you attempt to remove the tick, so ensure you identify a tick by finding legs or its embedded mouthpiece.
  • Use the appropriate tool for removing a tick from your pet — Pulling a live tick off with your fingers can force infectious contents into the bite site and increase your pet’s disease risk. Tweezers, blunt-tipped hemostats, or a tick key are the best tools.
  • Grasp the tick’s head close to your pet’s skin — Although ticks have six to eight legs depending on their life-stage, only mouthparts latch onto the prey. Therefore, proper and complete removal requires grasping the tick as close to the pet’s skin as possible. Always ensure you are not grasping your pet’s hair or skin before applying upward pressure. If you’re using a tick key or similar tool, follow the product directions. 
  • Pull upward and away from your pet using steady pressure — Free the tick—or more aptly, free your pet from the tick—by pulling in a steady upward motion. You may feel or hear a small pop as the tick’s mouthparts detach from the skin. Removal should be relatively pain free, or at most only briefly uncomfortable, for your pet.
  • Ensure safe tick disposal to prevent reattachment to your pet — Avoid crushing, pinching, or twisting the tick, which can expose you to its potentially infectious contents. Flush the tick down the toilet or drown them in alcohol to ensure they can’t reattach to your pet. To identify the tick species, take a picture that you upload to a tick identification app, or TickSpotters (i.e., The University of Rhode Island’s online resource).

Although most veterinary-recommended tick preventives will not prevent a tick from biting your pet because they work by killing the tick after it bites, any ticks you find on your pet should be small and dead. If you are administering flea and tick preventives every 30 to 90 days and finding multiple engorged ticks on your pet, contact your Safe Harbor Animal Hospital veterinarian or schedule an appointment at the hospital, or contact another local Animal Hospitals of the Low Country.