In the U.S., ticks are universal in every state. They prefer habitats such as brushy areas, tall grasses, and woodlands. They are primarily active from spring through autumn; however, there is one species, Dermacentor albipictus, that is active in the winter.
Ticks find their way to your horse by using a technique called “questing.” They grasp vegetation with their rear legs and reach out with their front legs. They sense moisture, heat, vibrations, and odors such as ammonia from sweat. When an unsuspecting horse moves past the tick, it grabs on for a free ride.
Ticks gravitate towards areas with thinner skin. They may latch on anywhere, but they tend to crawl to places like ears, face, tail, underneath the mane, inside the legs, and the soft underbelly.
Be sure to check your horse after riding in forests and fields and after turnout. Do visual and manual evaluations. Often ticks are easier to feel than to see.
What do you do if you find an embedded tick? Identify the head at the point of insertion. Using tweezers or your fingers, grasp the head and slowly but firmly pull it out. Clean with an antiseptic.
Other techniques for extracting ticks simply do not work and can cause unnecessary trauma to your horse’s skin. Crushing an engorged tick while still attached, may cause blood to be re-injected into your hose and increase the risk of disease.
Three primary tick disease affect horses: Lyme’s disease, anaplasmosis, and piroplasmosis. In addition, you may see localized skin irritation, infections, and itchiness. A few rare cases of tick paralysis have been reported in the United States.
Clinical signs range from mild to severe. To name a few, you may see stiffness, lethargy, lameness, fever, decreased appetite, weakness, weight loss, anemia, pain, and ocular or neurological signs. Many signs are non-specific and may be confused with other illnesses.
Lyme’s disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. It is carried by the deer tick-a member of the Ixodes family. The diagnosis is made with blood tests. The treatment of choice is antibiotics.
Anaplasmosis is also caused by a bacterium called Anaplasma phagocytophilum. Blood tests, DNA, or antibody tests can make the diagnosis. Antibiotics are the treatment of choice.
Piroplasmosis is caused by a protozoan from the Babesia family. The diagnosis is typically made with antibody testing. Treatment is attempted with an anti-parasitic drug, but results may not be curative.
Prevention will aid in the reduction of tick populations. Diligent trimming of fence rows and bushes, frequent mowing, and elimination of brush piles are helpful techniques. Spraying areas may be useful, but care must be taken to use a product safe for horses. Guinea fowl and chickens are adept at consuming ticks.
Treatments designed for the horse include oral and topical products. Oral ivermectin kills biting ticks but is not a repellant. Numerous topical applications are available, but you must check the label for specific tick branding.
Careful monitoring of your horse for ticks is the key to the prevention of resulting diseases and consult your veterinarian if you notice vague signs of illness.