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The right way to remove ticks from pets

By: Carrie Sloan |
Published: April 26, 2012
Updated: April 26, 2012 – 11:18 AM

It’s going to be summertime soon, when the living is easy — unless you have a pet who will be spending lots of time in the great outdoors. Spring and summer are the most popular (and prolific) seasons for ticks, especially this summer.

“We’re going to have a big problem with ticks this year because of the relatively mild winter we’ve had across the United States,” says Dr. Rick Alleman, DVM, Ph.D., a researcher on vector-borne diseases and a professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida. “The climate is particularly conducive to seeing lots of them.”

“Ticks are dangerous,” he adds. “They transmit much more than Lyme disease.” In fact, some can emit as many as four or five pathogens, and cause infections in humans and pets. If a large number of ticks infest a pet, they can suck so much blood that your pet can become anemic — a good reason to nip the prospect of ticks in the bud.

Fortunately, there’s preventive medicine that can protect your pet from picking them up in the first place, as well as foolproof techniques to remove them. But there are also popular myths out there that won’t actually fix the problem. Read on for expert advice on what you should do when ticks attack.

4 Common Tick Removal Myths

Petroleum jelly, burning them off, freezing them off, nail polish. These are just a few of the common folk remedies that pop up when you google tick removal. And all of them won’t work — and have the potential to further hurt your pet.

“These techniques are not viable options,” says Dr. Alleman. “The problem is that I’ve never seen a tick back out. Their head remains embedded in the animal’s skin.” And this is precisely the problem with petroleum jelly and nail polish: Pet owners think that they can drown or kill the tick, but the head stays in place.

Then there’s the burning method. Fact: Lighting a match anywhere near your pet is the very definition of playing with fire. “This should be common sense,” says Sabrina Wehrhan, lead veterinary technician at St. James Animal Hospital in St. James, New York. “The dog has hair. The hair is going to go up in flames.”

She also recommends not toying with the idea of freezing ticks, which some owners try to do by using an aerosol-based liquid freezing gel. “For one, you’re not a veterinary professional, so you won’t know how long to hold it on,” says Wehrhan. “I’ve seen people just spray and spray.”

The other myth Wehrhan has often heard: Once you successfully take a tick off, you can burn it. “The tick is actually toxic,” she says, “When it pops, it can let off a toxic fume that can be harmful to pets and infants.”

The Best Way to Remove a Tick

“Simply pull them out using tweezers or a tick remover,” says Dr. Alleman.

The latter is a tool that’s specially designed for safely and quickly removing ticks. “There are a couple of types,” explains Dr. Alleman. “One functions as blunt-ended, plastic tweezers. The other I’ve seen is called the Tick Key, a little gizmo that resembles a bottle opener. The hole in it comes down to a very thin point, so you can kind of slip the tick into this hole, slide the tick down to the end and basically lift — just like you would remove a cap off a bottle — and it pulls the tick out.”

Your technique is equally important: Start by parting your dog’s fur where you see a tick, and then “pull it out by the body, so as not to twist or pinch the head off,” says Dr. Alleman.

And be sure to take extra care if you’re using a tick-removal aid, like tweezers. “With tweezers, you need to be careful that you don’t squeeze the head and neck of the tick so hard that you break it,” he says. Instead, apply enough pressure to grab the body right where the head and neck attach — and don’t leave the head embedded.

Once you’ve removed a tick, there are a couple of ways to banish it for good. “If you just have a tick or two,” says Dr. Alleman, “I’d put them on a piece of tape, so they can’t move, and flush them down the toilet.”

Be warned: Flushing alone may not do the trick. “You don’t want to flush a live tick down the toilet because they can crawl back up,” explains Wehrhan.

“Putting them in rubbing alcohol will kill them,” says Dr. Alleman, who suggests pouring a little alcohol into a bottle, dropping in the tick and then waiting five minutes until you’re sure that the tick has met its match.

Protect Your Pet Before You Have a Tick Problem

The best way to protect your pet from ticks is to apply a monthly flea and tick preventative. “We’ve already seen flea and tick cases this year,” says Wehrhan. “We recommend starting now.”

And since ticks require a little bit of geo-targeting, you’ll want to consult with your vet first. “There are different tick products, and the first thing you need to recognize is that, depending on what kind of insecticides and repellents have been used in your area, some products may not work as well as others,” says Dr. Alleman. “Insects do develop resistance.”

Not all tick preventers are created equal, either. “We don’t recommend flea and tick collars because they’re localized around the neck,” says Wehrhan. Since fleas and ticks tend to latch on near the neck, the rump and in the crooks of a dog’s legs, most collars won’t provide total coverage.

So how do you know if your pet requires professional care? According to Dr. Alleman, there are a few signs to watch for: “I don’t want to say that you need to bring your dog in because you found a single tick on your animal, but if you notice a large red ring developing — regardless of whether there are 1 or 100 ticks — that’s evidence of the migration of pathogens, and a good sign that prophylactic treatment will be effective.”

The second red flag is the actual tick count: A lone tick isn’t reason enough for a visit. However, “any dog who has a lot of ticks needs to seek prompt professional attention,” says Dr. Alleman.

Bottom line: Seek out preventive care, and give your dog (along with yourself and any kids in your home) a thorough going-over on a daily basis to help ensure a carefree — and tick-free — summer