Alert for Horse Owners: Tick Season Is Here

Watch out for ticks on horse trails.
Watch out for ticks on horse trails.

With warm weather arriving as the spring season transitions to summer, tick season is upon us. Protecting horses and other animals from ticks becomes a priority because of the diseases and discomfort ticks cause.

A deer tick

A deer tick

Horses sometimes help owners locate the tick that has attached to them since the horse will begin biting at a certain location on his body and he will itch aggressively where a tick is embedded.
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In short, people and animals face ongoing tick problems as ticks become more active in warmer weather and more people are out and about. It is not uncommon to remove four or five ticks each day from a pet, especially horses and ourselves. People and horses have been diagnosed with Lyme disease and know the devastating symptoms and the cost of treatment of the disease.

Given the fact that numerous horses have been diagnosed with Lyme disease, one must take an aggressive attitude that horses can be afflicted with Lyme disease. Even if the tick does not cause a disease it is frustrating to think that a tiny creature is drinking the horse’s blood!

Understanding Lyme Disease

There are ticks of many varieties and all ticks have three developmental stages: larvae, nymph and adult. The tick that causes the most concern is the “deer tick” or “black legged ticks”, for when bitten by a deer tick that is inflicted with the spirochetal bacterium Borrelia burgdoferi, it can lead to Lyme disease. Does this mean that all deer ticks that bite and attach to a host have the bacteria that will cause Lyme disease? No it doesn’t, but one cannot tell if the tick is a danger just by its appearance.

The deer tick is not selective in its host, for it is attracted to a variety of wild and domestic species, including humans. Rodents, cats, dogs, birds, cattle and yes even horses can be bitten by the deer tick.

Larvae tick stage

During the larvae stage the tick is about the size of a small “dot” and is ready to look for a host victim.;

Immature deer ticks hatch from eggs and can become infected with Borrelia burgdorferi if they take a blood meal on a rodent which had already been infected with Borrelia burgdorferi.

This tick then may transmit the infection to new hosts when it takes subsequent blood meals. When the tick attaches to the host it begins its blood meal, meaning that it engorges its head into the host and absorbs the blood of the host.

The larvae must have a blood meal before they molt or change into the next stage. They live for 2 years even during the winter months.
The ticks attach to a host and feed for 12-24 hours before they can transmit the bacteria to infect the new host.

Nymph tick stage

The nymph stage begins after feeding. The larvae drop off their host and molt or transform into a nymph usually in the fall.  The nymph remains inactive during the winter and then in early spring becomes active again. The nymph, if infected in its larvae stage, attaches onto another host and feeds for 4-5 days where the body of the tick will swell with blood.

Adult tick stage

The nymph drops off the host and molts into an adult. The adults seek new hosts throughout the fall hiding in tall grasses or on tree limbs and they become inactive. When temperatures rise they begin looking for a host in an effort to obtain a blood meal and mate and reproduce. Adult female ticks attach to the host for about a week and feed, whereas males feed only intermittently.

Mating may take place on or off the host and is completed only after a blood meal. After mating, the female drops off the host and lays eggs beneath leaves and grasses. The eggs hatch in the summer and the two-year cycle begins again. 

Daily examination as prevention

One can feel the small bump that usually predicts an attached tick. Brushing will not remove the tick, but by using tweezers and grasping as close to the host’s skin as possible grasp the head of the tick and pull straight back taking care not to break the blood body pouch. Difficulties may arise if the head of the tick remains in the host and only the body is removed. Squishing the body sack of the tick releases the toxin.

Apply antibiotic ointment to the attachment site if the tick mouth parts break off and remain in the site, or if there is an open wound.

Remember if the tick is removed before the 12-24 hour time period the chances of contacting Lyme disease is slim. Unfortunately, often it is not known how long the tick has been attached and that is where extreme concern should be noted.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease In Horses:

  • Fever,
  • Shifting lameness that can’t be explained by injury or work level,
  • Poor performance,
  • Personality changes,
  • Laminitis (founder),
  • Arthritis,
  • Edema,
  • Joint swelling,
  • Eye inflammation
  • Encephalitis. 

Since the symptoms are the same as in many other horse ailments it makes it difficult to accurately diagnosis the disease, plus symptoms can take a long time to develop.
A blood test must be obtained and the results can indicate the horse has been exposed to Borrelia burgdorferi, but not to whether it is a current active infection. 

Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics which last over several weeks. A response to the therapy is usually observed within 2-5 days after start of treatment. The antibiotics may be administered orally, intramuscular or intravenously. Often anti-inflammatory drugs and/or medicines to help replace the normal intestinal bacteria killed by the antibiotics are given to the horse. Unfortunately, there is not a vaccine for Lyme disease currently licensed for horses. With continued research it is the hope that vaccines may be available for both horses and humans in the near future.

Annoying mark the tick bite may leave behind

Sometimes there is not a sign of where the tick is after removal, but more often than not there is a loss of hair around the area and a scabby bump. This can cause a problem when one is trying to maintain a beautiful coat covering for showing purposes.

Horses can sometimes help owners locate the tick that has attached to them. Often the horse will begin biting at a certain location on their body and he/she will itch aggressively the location where a tick is embedded.

It has been noted that March, April, May, and June, then Oct, Nov, and Dec are the main times when multiple tick attachments are found, though ticks can be found year round. The tick does not seem to have a preferred time of day or weather condition in which to attach-they find a host on sunny, rainy, cool and warm days.

Ticks are more select in the parts of the horse they like to attach onto. The majority of tick bites are on the neck, chest, throat, ears, jowl and chin of the horse. Often ticks attach to mares in these areas, whereas in geldings the tick seems to like the genital areas the best.

Horses often tolerate removal of ticks and appear pleased when  removal is accomplished. Placing a small dab of “Swat” or some other type of antibiotic ointment helps heal the wound quicker and seems to help the hair grow back faster (if the hair is missing). This ointment also seems to help keep other pests, such as flies, from being attracted to the site.  If the horse continues to itch, apply an anti-itch cream, which seems to ease the urge to rub and itch.

Disposal of Removed Tick

Remember that after removing the tick that it is not dead and one must find a way to end its life before it can attach to another host. One suggestion is to keep a baggie or small jar in the barn and place the removed tick(s) in the baggie/jar and completely seal it. Then properly dispose of the container with the removed ticks, where there is no chance for the tick's escape.

If you are experiencing tick issues with your pets discuss prevention and treatments with your veterinarians."

In a May blog by Scott Weese in Cats, Dogs, Horses, Dr. Weese informs concerned horse owners that ticks are on the move and are being found in new locations: "It’s pretty clear that tick ranges are changing. In Ontario, we’ve seen movement of ticks into areas where they were never seen before, as well as potential changes in the types of ticks that are found in different areas."

"The potential for tickborne diseases like Lyme disease highlights the importance of understanding tick distributions. Knowing where ticks are helps determine the need for tick prevention practices, and knowing the types of ticks that are present helps determine what diseases need to be considered."

"As some tick species establish footholds in new areas, it’s important to recognize and communicate this as early as possible."

To help horse and animal owners better track what is happening with the movement of ticks, Dr. Weese notes: "Various efforts are underway to track ticks and to figure out what pathogens they carry. We’re launching a preliminary project as well, the Pet Tick Tracker. 

This is a simple online tool where owners and veterinarians can enter information about ticks that they find on dogs, cats, horses or other domestic animals. This is the “lite” version for now – a slightly more comprehensive version that obtains a little more location information and includes a comment box will be released when it clear the University of Guelph Research Ethics Board.

Stay tuned for that, but in the interim, people finding ticks on domestic animals can access it here:

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

As an animal lover since childhood, Flossie was delighted when Mark, the CEO and developer of EquiMed asked her to join his team of contributors.

She enrolled in My Horse University at Michigan State and completed a number of courses in everything related to horse health, nutrition, diseases and conditions, medications, hoof and dental care, barn safety, and first aid.

Staying  up-to-date on the latest developments in horse care and equine health is now a habit, and she enjoys sharing a wealth of information with horse owners everywhere..