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How to Tick Check Your Dog (even if he’s big, black, and hairy)

I’ve been intending to write this post for over a year. There’s always something more pressing. However, my friend Karyn recently learned that her assistance dog, Thane, has Lyme. I’m very sad about this, although I take some comfort in knowing that my advocacy about Lyme occurring everywhere was part of the reason she got her dog tested, and that now he can be treated. Hopefully this post will prevent more dogs from getting tick-borne diseases.

Ever since I wrote a long, detailed post about canine Lyme disease for Lyme Disease Awareness Month in May 2010 stressing the importance of thoroughly tick checking your dog every day of the spring, summer, and fall, people have been asking me, “How do you do it?”

If you only want a very cursory explanation of how to tick-check, there is a new site devoted to ticks, dogs, and tick-borne disease in dogs, called DogsandTicks.com. The tick-checking information is on the disease-prevention page; better than nothing, I suppose, but I fear it will give people the impression that they are doing a thorough job when you’re not. The site also includes photos of ticks, how to remove ticks, information on various tick-borne diseases, and a FAQ.

If you want more detailed instructions on tick-checking your dog, read on!

People with dark-colored dogs, and long-haired dogs have expressed particular concern to me about how the heck to search an entire dog — especially if it’s a big dog. Having owned three consecutive large, dark, long-haired dogs (bouviers des Flandres), I know where they’re coming from.

I didn’t used to do systematic daily tick-checks until I got Lyme disease in 2007. That seriously changed my perspective on tick vigilance, particularly when my service dog, Gadget, too, turned out to have chronic Lyme.

Betsy and I thoroughly tick-checked Gadget (until he died, two years ago), every day. We carry on the tradition with Barnum, my one-and-a-half year-old puppy and service-dog-in-training.

There are certainly other things I’d rather be doing with the time and energy that go into tick-checking, but I’ve come to see it as required upkeep, like feeding or walking him. There are also a few side benefits that I’ll mention in my discussion.

Note: My tick-checking description includes things that are helpful to me, such as having an extra person, using my hands, good lighting, etc. I realize that if you are single, or blind, or don’t have good sensation in your fingertips you’ll need to modify how you check. It is definitely possible to tick-check by yourself (I do it often), as well as to do an effective job if you have limited vision or use of your hands. By creating a routine and becoming familiar with your dog’s normal bumps (whisker bumps, bug bites, nipples, warts and pimples), you will become much more able to identify ticks.

Please do not think that using “spot-on” flea and tick products (Frontline Plus, Advantix, etc.), makes tick checking unnecessary. This is not true. I have written in other posts that these products have several major drawbacks, including that they can cause chemical injury to people or animals sensitive to them. However, whether you choose to use them or not, they are not perfect, and your dog can still carry ticks. Consider:

  1. They do not repel or prevent ticks from climbing on and attaching; the ticks need to drink your dog’s blood before the product kills them. Ticks can feed on your dog for several hours before they die and fall off.
  2. These products are far more effective against fleas than ticks. There really is no product that is as effective against ticks as it is against fleas. They are hardy, adaptive, tough little bugs. Some are more effective against ticks than others, such as Advantix or Revolution. However, I recently spoke with Barnum’s breeder, who is an ER vet, and she told me that she would never put Revolution on her dogs, because she has seen so many serious adverse reactions to it in the ER. Revolution is the brand more vets in high-incidence areas like mine are suggesting as being more effective against ticks.
  3. Ticks evolve faster than humans can create poisons to kill them. Many vets and dog owners are reporting that products that used to be effective against ticks have lost their efficacy. This is particularly true in high-density tick areas.

So, choose whether or not to use these products, but don’t rely on them to make tick-checking unnecessary.

How about a summer hairdo?

If you have a long-haired dog that has hair instead of fur (such as a poodle or a bouvier), consider giving them a radical haircut in the spring and keeping it short through the fall. It is much easier to tick check a short coat than a long one.

Exhibit A: Gadget

Before . . .

Gadget, a gray brindle bouvier, stands on the patchy brown spring lawn. His hair is very long and shaggy, and he looks a lot like an Old English Sheepdog in terms of the amount of fur.

We let Gadget’s coat grow out in the winter.

. . . and After:

We fell asleep together

Gadget, freshly shorn, falls asleep with me after we’ve both been tick-checked.

Exhibit B: Barnum

Before . . .

Barnum lies on the bathroom floor. His coat is very long and shaggy and doesn't look well-groomed. He appears black except for a spot of white on his chin.

Yes, I know he looks disreputable here, but he’d just come in from the rain AND we were struggling with the wrong tools for too much coat!

. . . and After!

Barnum lies on a pale hardwood floor. He is close-cropped all over except for his face, which still has a bit of beard and fullness around the eyes. His brindling is very obvious, silver, white, gray, and black.

So sleek! And you can see all his lovely brindling this way, too! (Yeah, his legs and paws needed touch-ups. We did those another time.)

Barnum’s coat tends toward the texture, thickness, and consistency of thick, shag, wall-to-wall carpeting. And he’s black. It’s a gorgeous coat that’s a nightmare to check.

We always try to keep a short coat during tick season. It really makes a big difference. I know he doesn’t look as handsome, but I’d rather he’s healthy than gorgeous (and he’s adorable either way, of course). I’m sure bouvier aficionados gasp with horror at these extreme haircuts, but these are working dogs, not show dogs, and I have to do what works for me and for their health.

If you don’t have MCS and can afford it, you can get your dog professionally groomed, and then they will look a lot better than my dogs do! But, since groomers use a lot of scented products in their salons, that’s never been an option for me.

If you have a long-coated dog with fur (a “normal” long-haired dog), or a light-skinned dog (a pale-colored dog or one with a pink nose), or a dog that’s in the direct sunlight a lot, you might not want to cut down the coat due to issues of sunburn or skin cancer in the case of light-skinned dogs or due to problems with coat regrowth for typical-coated shedding dogs.

A good idea instead is to remove a lot of the bulk of the coat, use stripping tools. I am by no means a grooming expert — I only do what I have to to keep my service dog healthy and looking decent. I use the Mat Breaker and the Mars Coat King. If you want more information on this topic, ask a groomer or try a grooming forum online. Basically, the goal is to preserve the length for sun protection and the general form of the coat, but to thin/debulk the coat to keep your dog cooler as well as helping you feel the skin for ticks.

Lights, Blanket, Tick-Spoon!

Although it’s not known how long it takes for ticks to pass on Lyme and other tick-borne diseases (TBDs) — and different diseases are said to take differing lengths of time. A conservative estimate is that 24 hours is definitely enough time to pass on Lyme, while most other TBDs take less time. Rocky Mountain Spotted fever can be passed in just five hours. (I personally think that the 24-hour cut-off mark on Lyme is iffy.) Therefore, it’s important that you check at least daily, if at all possible.

It’s a good idea to create a routine, including what time of day you do tick-checking. This will help you remember to do it and will also make your dog more likely to accept it, because dogs usually find routine soothing.

Betsy and I like to tick-check everyone before bed, because it’s a time we’re most likely to both be available, and that way we’re not giving the ticks several uninterrupted hours of feeding during the night. But, if you’re a morning person, and that’s when you have the time, do it then. Or on your lunch break. If you miss your regular time, try to squeeze in a tick-check as soon as possible. Don’t give up in despair if you miss a day. This is an ongoing health maintenance routine, like brushing teeth or the coat. You do the best you can.

Part of the routine should be getting set up so that when you do find a tick, you have what you need. Before we start, I get something soft to sit on (because we usually check Barnum on the bathroom floor, and sitting on the hard, cold floor is too painful for me), our jar with hydrogen peroxide that we put the ticks into, our tick spoon (pictured below), treats, alcohol prep pads, and a pair of small, curved, blunt-tipped scissors that I use for grooming touch-ups on his paws and legs, particularly trimming the fur between his toes, which otherwise mats terribly. (UPDATE: I now use a much better tool for removing ticks, which are Tick Removal Forceps.)

Very thin, lightweight metal tool, about half the length of a popsicle stick, tapered on one end with a V-shaped opening. The length of the tool has a slight creased in the center, so that it is mildly concave. It's attached by a metal-bead key-chain to a plastic magnifying class about teh size of a penny or nickel.

This is the tick spoon we have. I find it easiest to use if I remove the magnifying glass, as it gets in my way.

On days when I’m too sick to work on the bathroom floor, we put a light-colored sheet down on my bed, and check Barnum on my bed. A major consideration for your locale is where the best lighting is. We turn on all the lights in my room right before we start the check. While you mostly use your hands to find ticks, it really helps if, once you have found one, if you can see what you’re doing.

The Side-Benefits to Tick Checking

Every person and dog is different, so how you go about the job will depend on what works for both of you. For example, Gadget knew as soon as the sheet went over the bed at night that it was “dog cuddling time,” and he’d jump up and lie down on his side and be super-relaxed. Since Gadget let me have my way with him, I usually started with his paws, just because they were an obvious starting point and therefore an easy way for me to be methodical: First the right, front foot, then all the way up to the elbow and armpit. Then the left front and up, then the right hind foot, etc.

With Barnum, because he’s more touchy about his paws and likes to start by sitting or standing and facing me (often licking my chin), I take a different approach. He enjoys having his face rubbed, so I do his whole head very thoroughly first, and when he’s nice and relaxed, I move to the legs and paws. (This is also helpful because most of the ticks I find on him are on his head and front legs and chest, so I am more apt to get them when I am at my freshest; my body and mind are not always at their best by the time I’m done.) He is getting more used to the routine now and has started to relax into lying down as we proceed.

If your dog is not totally comfortable or compliant with being touched all over, I have three suggestions, which you can combine.

The first is to follow Sue Ailsby’s “handling” instructions from Level 2 of the original Training Levels. (Scroll down to find “Handling.” The behaviors are listed in alphabetical order, so it’s below “Go to Mat.”) This slow approach really focuses you on making sure your dog is not just tolerating touch, but actually relaxing into it and enjoying it.

The second suggestion is a tip I got from another partner-trainer I met on the Level’s list. She taught her goldendoodle the names of all his various body parts (I hinted at this practice in this previous post). This can be handy at the vet or whenever you need to check a certain part. If it’s possible, the dog can offer you the part (chin, foot, etc.). However, even when the dog can’t actually present the part, by teaching him the name, he will know what’s coming and not feel “ambushed” when you — or someone else — suddenly grabs that part. For Barnum, the parts that it’s been most helpful for him to learn are “foot” (for the front paws), “hind” (for rear paws), “ear,” “lips,” and “tail.”

To teach the parts, just say the name you’ve chosen as you handle it, every time. You might want to reinforce the learning with a tidbit for relaxing into your touch or holding still upon hearing the word.

The third is if you have a squirmy puppy or other dog who is just too excited to hold still, you can use the bio-feedback exercises from Control Unleashed. This information was a godsend for Betsy and me when Barnum was a puppy who could not hold still for an instant — or so we thought. I had been dubious that I’d be able to click for such fleeting behaviors as blinking, but it really worked. I clicked and treated for eye blinks, soft/sleepy eyes, yawning, lip-licking, exhaling/sighing, lying down, any relaxed body posture, etc. I encouraged these behaviors by blinking, giving him sleepy eyes, yawning, lip-licking, exhaling, etc. We would start out with a wriggly puppy bouncing all over, and end up with him lying on his side!

Whatever you do, try to set up a routine that is as comfortable and pleasant as possible. If you and your dog like music, put on some music. If you’re most comfortable with a grooming table or bed, use those.

That’s because two side-benefits of daily tick-checking are:

  1. A good way to monitor your dog’s health. If you are familiar with every lump and bump, when a new one arises, you will know. Since you need to check your dog’s lips, you will also notice your dog’s teeth, gums, breath, and other indicators of health. On the other end, checking the anus can show you if there is poop that needs to be cleaned away or anal glands to be expressed, etc. I often use tick-checking time to trim the hair between toe pads that otherwise gets matted very easily.
  2. If you work at making sure this is a very familiar, enjoyable experience, your dog will come to view it as a treat. We include a lot of massaging of favorite parts (back of the neck, behind the ears, front of the chest), sweet-talking, and treats. If your dog gets over excited by treats, you might not want to use them, or use low-value treats. The picture above of Gadget sleeping between my legs really was taken immediately after a tick check, when we were both so relaxed, we fell asleep (and Betsy took the picture without me knowing it until later).

It used to be that we couldn’t get Barnum to lie down and relax for his tick check. However, after over a year of handling practice and lots of treats, behold a recent tick check. First, I check his ears. . . .

Sharon leans over Barnum, who is lying on the bed, his eyes shut, head resting between his paws. Sharon is holding one of Barnum's long ears in each hand, rubbing the flaps between her fingers.

His ears are his most sensitive body part, too!

Then Betsy checks his back and sides. . . .

Barnum lying on the bed on his right side. His right foreleg is stretched way out from under his head, his eyes are closed, and his head looks very floppy and relaxed. His left foreleg is stretched out lazily in the other direction. Only Betsy's arms are visible, one hand on Barnum's ribs, the other on the back of his neck.

“Ah, nobody gives a neck massage like mommy Betsy. . . . Zzz.”

The tick check: Feel your way. . .

Here’s how to actually conduct the check.

As to where to start, that’s up to you. If you want to start with the places you’re most likely to find ticks, that is the head, especially the ears (inside and out), then the whole rest of the head, including eyelids, eyebrows, cheeks, top of the head, chin, and lips. Then the neck (take off the collar so you don’t miss anywhere), the chest, shoulders, armpits, front legs (including between the toes), then back legs.

Or, if you want to work in a more orderly fashion, here’s how I usually do it:

Starting with the feet (if your dog is amenable), put your fingers between each toe (I do forefinger under and thumb over the webbing of the foot) and feel for bumps. You are checking for ticks between the toes on the underside of the paw as well as on the furred side, above. Likewise between the toes and the “heel” pad. A lot of the time, I pull out burrs, sap, etc., under the feet and between toes, or trim out mats.

If I feel anything there that I think is a tick, I have found it impossible, even with a docile dog, to use tweezers or a tick spoon in that location — there’s just not space to angle. Instead, find where the tick is attached (where its mouth parts disappear under the skin), grasp there — using your best fingernails, if that’s an option — and pull it slowly and steadily until you have it (and whatever hair came along) out of reach.

I’ll get to disposal of ticks and tick spoons, etc., after explaining how to check.

Feel the top of the foot and heel, too, and then work your way up the leg, running thumbs and fingertips up the skin, against the grain of the fur. I use an up-and-down motion sort of “massaging” or “scouring”with my fingertips to make sure I’m feeling beneath the fur to the skin, and covering all areas. Make sure to get your fingers in the indentations and grooves between the bones.

Definitely check the elbow and armpit. Lift the leg forward slightly to see the underside of the joint, if possible.

Then you can do the rear feet and legs the same way — checking between the toes and moving up the leg. While you’re back there, remember to feel the inner leg and groin, and in males, the penis and testicles. (It’s not common, but I have found ticks on the penis — gross!)

Here is where you will probably mistake a nipple for a tick, because there is a pair on either side of the penis, which is not where humans are used to thinking of nipples spending their time. Everyone who’s ever checked one of my male dogs has made this mistake. It’s very easy to do! If you’re not sure if it’s a tick, check for a similar bump further down, along the milk-line, or across the way, on the other side. If there is another little dark bump parallel to it, it is probably a nipple! Taking a good, close look helps, too. Look for legs! (Ticks have legs. Nipples don’t.) Also, over time you will get used to where each nipple is and how it feels. Don’t try to pull them off — the dogs don’t like it! (That’s one way to tell, if you’re uncertain if it’s a nipple or a tick, don’t use tweezers or a tick spoon! Grab with your fingers and pull gently, if the dog objects, it’s probably a nipple!)

Start at the base of the tail, and feel there. (This is where I save some time — not much tail on a bouvier!) Check the tail much like it’s a leg, feeling along the whole length. Now, the fun part: Lift the tail and examine the anus. Sometimes you have to run your finger around it if you can’t see it well. If you have a furry dog, you might have to trim the fur. If you’re squeamish, use medical exam gloves. We have found ticks on the anus. Truly gross. Throw out the gloves or wash your hands, then continue!

Ears, neck, and head are very important. Feel the entire ear, inside and out, and also get a really good look inside the ear. I use the opposing finger and thumb, again, for both sides, doing the entire ear. I also put my finger into the external ear canal (not deep!) because sometimes they hide in the ridges there. Rub with your fingers, like you were shampooing your scalp, the whole head and face. Check the lips, including between nose and lips, and look at the eyelids and eyebrows. (Just this year, I have found ticks on Barnum’s eyelid — right next to his eye — three times.)

Take off the collar to check the neck and chest, again, using the “scouring” motion with your fingers. Do his entire flank and as much of his back and belly and abdomen as you can reach (depending on how he’s standing or lying.) Hopefully he’s snoring by now! Then, wake him up! While he’s standing, if he will stay up, do the massaging with all your fingers on his back, which you probably couldn’t see/reach that well when he was lying down.

Then, get him on his other side, and repeat.

How to Remove and Dispose of Ticks

The best tool to remove ticks in most cases is a tick spoon, or tick tool, like the one above. Robbins Pet Care, sells a good, inexpensive tick spoon, Tick Tool, which also comes with a tick ID card and magnifying glass. Amazon carries it, too, as do other places, but I have found it cheapest online at Robbins. I have found that the tick spoon is superior to tweezers. It’s easier to handle, and you’re less likely to squish the tick accidentally.

The tool comes with instructions for use, but it’s not difficult to figure out — you slide the slit of the tool against the dog’s skin so that the tick is in the slit of the tool. You keep sliding all the way until the tick is in the very narrowest part of the spoon, and then you slowly, steadily pull up. The nice thing about this tool, too, is that it usually keeps the tick trapped in the slit while you get your stuff together to dispose of the tick.

There is one time when the tick spoon does not work well, which is unfortunate, because it’s the most important time: removing very small ticks, such as deer tick nymphs. Because they are so small, sometimes the slit in the spoon is too big to catch them. This can be made more difficult if they are slightly engorged, because that makes them squishier (and deer ticks already have a softer exoskeleton than a dog tick). If you try using the tick spoon on a really, really tiny tick, and you can’t get it, my best advice is to use your fingers. Grasp at the very base, right against your dog’s skin, and pull.

(Update: Tick Removal Forceps work better because they allow me to remove any size or type of tick, even very small ticks, including deer tick nymphs. Here is my review of the forceps.)

As for disposal, some things not to do: Do not put it in the trash can. It will just crawl out. Do not squeeze it between your fingers or smash it with a rock or pierce it with scissors, because ticks are filled with harmful microorganisms, and you don’t want those splattering out. Although many people flush them down the toilet, I don’t trust flushing a live tick down the toilet, just in case it manages to climb out. They can survive and float in water a long time, especially if they have something to grab a hold of.

A pretty safe method is to put it in a jar of rubbing alcohol with a tightly closing lid. Alcohol kills them pretty quickly. I am sensitive to alcohol, so we use hydrogen peroxide. They live for a few days in the jar, but since they’re contained, they’re no longer a threat. It doesn’t kill them right away, but it does eventually. You can also put it in a tightly sealed Ziploc bag. They will die due to drying out (not starvation; they can go ridiculously long without feeding). On a hot day, they might die within twenty-four hours or less. This is also the method to use if you want to send the tick away for testing.

If you can easily get back to the spot where you removed the tick, use a disinfectant, such as an alcohol prep pad or BZK to clean the area, although it’s important not to let your dog lick alcohol, as it’s poisonous to them if ingested. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly, as well.

I hope this has been helpful! Please spread the word to everyone you know with a dog!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I loved dog-cuddling time!), and Barnum, SDiT (I’m waiting for my massage!)


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