Dispelling 6 Common Myths About Ticks

Warm weather is finally here, and as the temperatures rise across the country, a lot more ticks will be upon us – and our pets!

With misinformation circulating on online blogs and via word of mouth at the dog park, it's essential to separate fact from fiction to better protect our pets from the adverse effects of ticks and their bites. As such, I've decided to share and correct some of the most common misunderstandings about ticks I hear from pet owners in my office.

Are you ready to uncover the truth about ticks? Let's dive into the top six misconceptions about these pests and learn how to keep our pets safe and sound.

Myth #1: Ticks Jump from Trees

Here's the first myth we're busting: You may have heard that ticks can jump down from trees or other plants to prey on your dog or cat. But here's the reality of it: Ticks don't jump – at all. While fleas are amazing jumpers that will actively hunt down an animal to jump onto, ticks are lazy, and ambushing prey is simply too much for them. They simply crawl up bushes and grass to spread six of their legs out until something brushes against them to grab onto, in a process known as "questing," which is ultimately an attempt to find a host to latch on to.

The maximum height that ticks will climb to is between 18 and 24 inches, depending on the species. So, choosing to walk your dog through Bay Farm over the Town Forest or making other route alterations based on the presence of trees will not protect you or them from ticks. It's more effective to prioritize avoiding walking your pet through tall grassy areas. If your typical route does take you and your pet through patches of tall grass, be sure to conduct a thorough check of your pet's body as soon as you get home. That includes areas that may seem to be hard to reach, like between the toes, under the arms, and on the belly.

Shih Tzu looking at tick in tweezers.

Myth #2: Deer Attract Ticks

Don't let the term "questing" fool you when it comes to ticks. Ticks don't really wander much, and they definitely don't seek out prey like mosquitoes or fleas. They simply move too slowly, making the idea that they specifically go after deer sounds a little silly. While it's true that certain species of ticks, like the black-legged tick (also known as the deer tick), do feed on deer, they also rely on a variety of other hosts, including small mammals, birds, and even humans and our pets.

While ticks aren't specifically targeting deer, engorged ticks can certainly fall off deer to lay eggs in areas of high deer-density. Because of this, there may potentially be more ticks where deer congregate, which is likely where the misconception comes from. At the end of the day, ticks are opportunistic parasites that will feed on any suitable host they encounter, regardless of the presence of deer.

While controlling deer populations won't have any benefit for reducing the number of ticks in your area, there are other animal control efforts that can make a difference. In fact, controlling mice around your home is actually more important than controlling deer. The mice are the ones nurturing the baby ticks to the age where they bite us and our pets. So, by ensuring that your yard and areas around your house are mice-free, you can reduce the chance of you or your pet being bitten.

Myth #3: There Is a “Tick Season”

I realize that calling this a fallacy goes against the first statement in this article, but my point is that some people think ticks are not active from October through April. Ticks don’t take a vacation; they are a problem all year round. While tick activity may increase during spring and summer due to warmer temperatures and higher humidity rates, ticks can remain active year-round in certain regions. Whether we like it or not, there’s no off-season when it comes to ticks, and we need to be as vigilant in the winter as we are in spring or summer.

Contrary to what a lot of pet owners think, ticks do not die in the cold and will still be actively feeding in temperatures below freezing so long as they are not covered in snow. According to researchers, “most experts look at 4 degrees Celsius or 40 degrees Fahrenheit as a common tipping point between questing and resting weather” for ticks. However, it’s important to note that there’s no definite temperature where ticks stop questing and begin preserving resources, and it has been shown that ticks can be quite resilient, with studies showing that only approximately 20% of tick populations die off in the winter. This is why tick prevention is recommended throughout the year.

Myth #4: Insect Repellants Are Better Than Preventives

Dispelling this myth isn’t quite as black and white as the others that we’ve discussed so far. In theory, this makes sense as it would be better to keep the ticks from biting our dogs and cats at all, but the solution really isn’t that simple. The issue with this is that ticks are not like mosquitoes where they will flit about sniffing and then fly away because of the repellant. Ticks move slowly and often need to get close to the skin before they sense the repellants. They will eventually crawl off, but often this occurs after the pets have come back into the home. In these cases, they will go after the next best thing: us.

This is why veterinarians recommend using tick preventives specifically formulated for pets. These products are designed to effectively repel and kill ticks without posing a risk to your dog, cat, or any other pet in your household. But remember to be responsible with your tick preventative. Always consult with your veterinarian to determine the most suitable form and brand of tick prevention for your pet based on factors such as species, age, and health status.

Tick on dog ear.

Myth #5: Covering the Ticks in Certain Solutions is the Best Way to Remove Them

There's a prevalent myth that covering ticks with certain household substances is an effective method for removing them from the skin. I have heard about slathering ticks with more compounds than I can remember: essential oils, petroleum jelly, nail polish, bourbon (what a waste!), and the list goes on.

The idea behind this myth is that by suffocating the tick or making its environment inhospitable, it will detach itself from the host. However, this approach can be not only ineffective but also potentially harmful. Yes, ticks will eventually die from many of these things, but research has supported that they seem to regurgitate into their host as they suffocate. This spreads bacteria and viruses into the bloodstream. Carefully using tweezers and pulling the tick away from its head is still the best method.

Myth #6: You Have to Dig the Mouth Parts Out After Removal

The process of tick removal can be anxiety-inducing for pet owners, especially if it's their first time dealing with a tick on their pet. During my time in the clinic, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about the proper technique for tick removal, including debates on whether or not you need to remove the tick’s mouth parts during removal. I’m here to tell you that you absolutely do not need to remove the mouth parts, and doing so may even cause your pet additional unwanted harm or pain.

The mouthparts of a tick are stuck into the skin with a form of natural glue secreted with the tick’s saliva. Unless the tick secretes the natural solvent it uses to disengage, they are NOT coming out. You would have to dig out a chunk of your pet’s skin in the process, which no pet owner wants to do.

Thankfully, there are no bacteria or viruses in the mouth parts of the tick, so, leaving them is like leaving a splinter for the body to eventually push out on its own. I’m not saying it can’t get infected like a splinter, I’ve just never seen it in 30 years. However, I have seen infections from the trauma owners trying to dig them out of their pets, which certainly could have been avoided.

Partner with Your Vet to Fight Ticks & Misinformation

Understanding the truth behind common myths about ticks is essential for protecting our pets from these pesky parasites. Advice from online forums and well-meaning friends isn’t comparable to the vetted and trusted information you can get from working closely with your veterinarian. So let’s all do our part to listen to and promote reputable sources and accurate information so we can give our pet’s the best care and tick prevention possible.

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This information was first seen on Duxbury Animal Hospital.

Contributing DVM