Creepy crawly little things! There have been rumblings that this year is going to be a bad one for ticks so we wanted to talk about what to do if you find one (and how to try and keep them far, far away).
While grooming your horse you come across a little bump. On closer inspection you realize it’s a tick. Ugh, gross! Here’s what you should do:
Remove it immediately by putting on some gloves and, using tweezers, grasp the tick by the head where it is entering your horse’s skin and pull firmly and steadily straight back until the head comes free of the skin. You can either put the tick into a small jar of rubbing alcohol to kill it or you can send your tick to the Washington Department of Health – they will identify the tick and let you know what species it is (and you’ll help them with disease tracking)! (Learn more here). Wash the area on your horse where the tick was attached with a mild antiseptic like chlorhexidine. It is also handy to make a note of what day this happened so if you horse becomes ill, you can provide this information to your veterinarian (more on this later).
DO NOT twist or crush the tick; doing this can cause the tick to regurgitate blood back into your horse, increasing the chance of infection or disease transmission.
DO NOT apply baby oil or petroleum to try and smother it or try to burn it off with a lit match; these don’t work and can just lead to hurting your horse.
Now that the little nuisance is gone, you start to wonder how to prevent this from happening again. Here are some tips:
Use tick repellents; this can include permethrin sprays or wipes. Make sure you check the label and that it lists ticks (Ecovet, UltraShield Red, Repel-X, and Endure are a few that do). Apply these to your horse’s mane, tail head, chest, underbelly, inside the flank, and around the sheath (if applicable) before riding or turning your horse out into a pasture. Ticks are most often found in these locations because that is where the skin is thinner.
Ticks like to live in brushy areas so you can decrease the chance of your horse picking some up by removing brush in your pastures and around your property. They also like to hang out on tall grass so keep your pastures mowed as well. When riding, steer clear of overgrown trails.
Discourage wildlife, such as deer and mice, from inhabiting your property; they tend to introduce/reintroduce ticks into grazing areas.
Get some birds! Guinea fowl and free-range chickens do a great job of eating ticks.
Remember, ticks are not species-specific, meaning that they like to go after anyone, including you!
What diseases could my horse get from a tick?
The most “common” tick-transmitted disease that can be found in our area is Equine Granulocytic Anaplasmosis (formerly Ehrlichiosis). While Lyme disease is likely the one you’ve heard the most about in association with ticks, it is uncommon here in Washington (per the WA Department of Health, only 0 – 3 human cases are reported each year). While no human cases of Anaplasmosis have occurred in WA, it has been diagnosed in dogs and horses in our state.
It is a bacterial disease caused by Anaplasma phagocytophilum and in our area is spread primarily by the Western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) (by sending in any tick you find to the WA DOH, you can find out whether your horse is at risk). The bacterium infects the host’s white blood cells and symptoms can include high fever, anorexia, edema, lethargy, petechial hemorrhage, jaundice and ataxia. Horses can develop symptoms anywhere from 1 – 3 weeks following exposure. Infection is diagnosed via PCR testing, lab analysis of a blood smear or blood titers. Fortunately, Anaplasmosis tends to be a self-limiting disease, meaning it will resolve on its own. However, some horses require treatment with a course of tetracycline antibiotics. Usually when treatment is started there is rapid clinical improvement.
While it is pretty well impossible to completely prevent your horse from being exposed to ticks, you can try to minimize their risk with the steps listed earlier and by doing thorough examinations of them when they have been in higher risk areas, and when doing your routine grooming. Fortunately, the chances of your horse getting sick from a tick are pretty low, but who wants those little creepers hanging off their horse?! Blech.
For more on ticks and the diseases associated with them, check out these resources: