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How to check your dog for ticks

As Wyoming thaws after a long winter, thousands of residents and their dogs take to the hills to enjoy the fresh spring air and peerless views that make the state such an outdoor attraction. It’s the season for renewed activity for all – including ticks. Wherever there are shrubs and trees, there are probably ticks as well. Near water, it’s a sure bet that there are ticks just waiting to latch onto the next creature to pass by. Ticks burrow under the skin, biting their hosts and potentially infecting them with a wide range of diseases. Every good hiking trip ends with checking a dog for ticks.

An engorged tick attached to a dog's skin. It's currently at the biggest size that's likely in Wyoming tick species.
An engorged tick attached to a dog's skin. It's currently at the biggest size that's likely in Wyoming tick species.Borislav Dopudja, Wikimedia Commons

Tools and preparation for finding ticks on a dog

Checking a dog for ticks really only requires two things: A comb and a pair of gloves. It's never a good idea to look for ticks with bare hands. If a dog doesn’t want to sit still for the check, it may also be necessary to leash him or offer treats at regular intervals. Prepare a well-lit room and a comfortable, supportive chair – this process can take a while, but it’s worth it to keep a dog from contracting tick-borne diseases.

What to look for when trying to find ticks on a dog

Ticks are sometimes big and easy to spot, and may even displace hair when they become engorged. Often, though, they are tiny and easy to miss. Some species of ticks never get very big, and juveniles can easily be the size of a pinhead or smaller. Ideally, checking a dog quickly will keep a tick from burrowing too far or getting too engorged before it’s discovered.

In Wyoming, dogs are most likely to pick up brown dog ticks or Rocky Mountain wood ticks. Both are known carriers of tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Both of these diseases are potentially deadly, and both can infect humans. Unengorged, both species are about 1/8” in diameter and range from reddish-brown to dark brown in color.

Checking a dog for ticks

The actual process of looking for ticks on a dog is simple. Put on a pair of gloves first – disposable latex gloves, rubber household gloves or even dog grooming gloves are fine. Start at the dog’s tail and gently pet him in long, smooth strokes toward his head, against the grain of the hair. As each section of hair comes up, it will show a small portion of the dog’s skin. Go slowly and carefully watch for any dark spots against the skin, or anything off-color on the hair. Obviously, light-colored dogs are a lot easier to check than dark. If the dog has medium or long hair, comb first to remove tangles and to knock any ticks free that may not have reached the skin yet.

Continue checking the dog’s hair, methodically working in strips along each side. Now check his neck, the top of his head, his tail and his legs. Carefully examine the insides of the dog's ears and between his toes. Some dogs might be touchy in these areas, so it’s always a good idea to have a leash or a second person at hand to help comfort the dog and hold him still.

If there are any ticks on the dog, then safely remove the ticks. Bear in mind that the ticks should never be twisted, burned, or otherwise hurt as they can leave body parts or excess saliva inside the bite. Drop the ticks in rubbing alcohol for quick, sanitary disposal.