What to Do If You Find a Tick on Your Dog


The deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, is the main vector for Lyme disease.
Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia

This is the time of year when my dog loves to run through the tall grass in the field next to our home…which means it’s high time for ticks. These tenacious little arachnids carry any number of diseases—from Lyme disease to ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever—and your dog is not the only one in danger. Dogs often bring ticks into the house, where they may find their way onto the human inhabitants. Vigilance is your main weapon against ticks, so it pays to perform regular tick checks on your dogs, your family, and yourself.

Checking for Ticks on Your Dog

You should check for ticks daily, especially after a hike or other outdoor trek. If you’ve been on an adventure, do a quick tick check before loading up in the car, and then once again after you arrive home.

Checking daily helps prevent disease: If you find a tick within 24 hours of its bite, there’s a good chance your dog has not been infected with Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses—these take time to transmit. Even if your companion has been infected, treatments are most effective following early detection.

A tick waits for its host in the ‘questing’ position—legs outstretched, reaching for anything that passes near enough for it to grasp. Because ticks hitch a ride using whatever they happen to grab, you may find a tick anywhere on your dog’s body. When you check your dog for ticks, run your hands over his body, using your fingers to feel for bumps in the fur. Examine your dog from nose to tail, focusing on the areas where ticks are most common.

Where Are You Most Likely to Find Ticks on a Dog?

Ticks may crawl or attach anywhere on your dog, but they are most attracted to warm, moist areas, including:

  • Under the front legs (the ‘armpits’)
  • At the joints
  • In the groin area
  • Around the face, especially near the eyes and ears
  • Between the toes

What Does a Tick Look Like on a Dog?

A tick looks like a small bump—you may be able to spot a tick on your short-haired dog because his fur rises where the tick has embedded. But you’re more likely to feel a tick before you see one.

An attached tick may be engorged—it will appear large, round, and silver or white. Engorged ticks have been feeding for two to three days and are full of blood.

A tick that is not yet engorged is usually very small, black or brown in color, oval-shaped, and flat. If you check your pet often for ticks, you’re likely to catch a tick before it becomes engorged. When a tick has attached, its mouthparts—often referred to as the tick’s head, which isn’t anatomically accurate—are embedded in the skin and the body remains visible.

Unattached ticks may crawl through your dog’s fur, looking for somewhere to feast.

Is It a Tick—or Something Else?

If you feel a bump, inspect it carefully. When removing a tick, ensure it’s actually a tick—veterinarians caution that what looks like a tick may be a skin tag, scab, mole, wart, or nipple. Before tugging, use these tips to confirm that it’s a tick:

  • Check for legs. Ticks have eight legs that stick out while they’re alive or curl up when dead.
  • Watch for movement. Live ticks will wiggle or move their legs while attached.
  • Look at how it’s attached. Ticks attach at the mouthparts, and the body will move independently. If the base is as wide as the rest of the lump, it’s more likely a mole or skin tag.
  • Inspect the color. Ticks are black or brown, and can be silvery-white when engorged.
  • Feel to determine if it’s skin or a tick. Ticks usually feel hard and smooth, while skin tags and moles are warm and soft to the touch.

Removing a Tick From Your Dog

If you’ve found a tick, your next job is to remove it. If the tick is not embedded, simply pluck it from your dog’s fur and dispose of it. If it hasn’t bitten, you can flush it down the toilet, submerge it in rubbing alcohol, or wrap it in tape.

If the tick is embedded—attached to the skin—remove it right away. There are lots of misconceptions about the best way to do this, so let’s start with the veterinarian-recommended, tried-and-true method:

  • Firmly grasp the tick’s body as close as possible to your dog’s skin with a pair of tweezers—but, not so that you puncture or squish it—and then gently tug until the tick gives up and releases its bite.
  • If the body breaks free but the mouthparts remain, try to remove the remaining pieces with the tweezers. If they don’t come out easily, stop and check with your veterinarian. They may recommend leaving the remaining pieces alone: The body naturally pushes them out as the bite heals, but picking at the pieces may cause irritation or infection.
  • Consider purchasing a tool specifically designed for tick removal. There are many on the market, but the Tick Key is the most effective. Its shape is designed so that your pull exerts just the right force to safely remove the tick, intact, from the skin.
  • Clean the bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water and keep an eye on it for the next few weeks for rash, redness, or changes.
  • Wrap the tick in a damp—but not wet—paper towel, so its body stays hydrated. Place it all inside a plastic zip-top bag, write the date on it, and toss it into the fridge.
  • Wash the tweezers and your hands thoroughly, and then call your vet about getting the specimen tested to determine if it’s carrying any diseases.

How to Use Vaseline to Remove a Tick From a Dog

Short answer, you don’t. Tick removal strategies based on folk wisdom, like using a match, petroleum jelly, vaseline, or gasoline, are myths. These methods increase the likelihood of the tick vomiting inside your dog, spewing out any diseases it may carry. Gasoline and matches are dangerous options, especially near a dog’s fur and sensitive skin. Keep your canine safe and stick to the simpler, vet-approved method: tweezers.

How to Use Alcohol to Remove a Tick From a Dog

Just as you shouldn’t use vaseline to remove a tick, nor should you apply rubbing alcohol to get the tick to detach. Instead, use tweezers to extract the tick as soon as possible, and then clean the bite afterward using rubbing alcohol.

How to Get Rid of Ticks on Dogs

While knowing how to remove a tick is important, prevention is also a top priority. Follow these steps to keep ticks from biting in the first place:

  • Repel and kill nasty parasites by keeping your dog’s flea and tick preventative up to date. The Seresto dog collar is an easy, long-lasting solution.
  • Perform a thorough tick check after wandering where ticks are common. They’re most often found in wooded or grassy areas and where rodents live and breed, but ticks can live in coastal and urban areas as well.
  • Know when ticks are most active—year-round, but especially May through September, when the days are warm—and check thoroughly and diligently during those months.
  • Make your yard unfriendly to ticks: Place tick tubes throughout, clean up debris, leaves, fallen branches, and woodpiles, keep grass trimmed, and maintain a gravel or mulch border between your yard and wooded or grassy areas.

Finding a tick on your dog isn’t pleasant, but you can reduce the risk of tick-borne illness by taking quick action. Make tick bite prevention a priority when you keep your dog’s flea and tick treatment up to date and add daily tick checks to your to-do list. Even with prevention, you’ll likely find a tick on your dog now and then. Assess the situation, remove the tick properly, and check with your veterinarian for the next steps, based on your location or other risk factors.

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