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Creepy Ticks - What Does That Mean For Your Horse

In the United States, ticks are ubiquitous.They are primarily active from spring to fall. Their preferred habitats are tall grasses, pastures, woods, and brushy areas. They are opportunists and not picky. They enjoy sucking the blood of mammals, birds, reptiles, and even amphibians. Ticks find their way to your horse by sensing heat, vibrations, moisture, and odors such as ammonia from sweat and carbon dioxide from breathing. Ticks cannot fly or jump.

They use a technique called “questing.” They cling to tips of grass, bushes, or trees with their rear legs and reach out with their front legs. They’ll hover, waiting for an unsuspecting passerby, then latch on for a free ride. 

A tick may immediately attach itself, or it may crawl to thinner skin areas. Ticks prefer places like ears, mane, tail, face, inside of the legs, and the soft underbelly. You should check your horse after riding in the fields and forests and after turnout. Do a visual as well as a manual inspection. Often the culprits are easier to feel than to see, especially if you have a dark-coated horse. 

If you discover one, don’t panic! Techniques such as ripping them out, smearing them with petroleum jelly, or trying to light them on fire, don’t work. Resist the urge to smash an engorged tick while it’s latched on. There is a possibility of re-injecting blood back into your horse and thus increasing the risk of diseases. Instead, use a pair of tweezers or your fingers, grasp the head, and slowly but firmly pull it out. Clean the area with an antiseptic.

Preventative treatments can decrease infestations. Keeping pastures mowed, bushes and fence rows trimmed, and elimination of brush piles are helpful. Sunny spots are deterrents; ticks do not like hot, open spaces. Spraying areas around the property with a parasiticide may be useful. Use caution in selecting a product safe for horses, especially in grazing areas. Adding tick eaters, such as guinea fowl and chickens, aid in reducing the arachnid menace.

Treatments specifically designed for the horse include oral and topical routes. Ivermectin kills ticks that have bitten the horse, but it does not have a repellant effect. Numerous topical products are available on the market. Be sure to check the label for specific tick branding. 

When it comes to diseases, ticks are tricky. A single bite can make one horse terribly sick while another may be loaded with ticks and show no signs of illness. Clinical signs vary from none to severe. You may only see your horse rubbing at the site of skin irritation, or he may be completely down and unable to get up. Many signs are non-specific; meaning, they could be caused by a variety of ailments. For example, fevers may be attributed to viral, bacterial, neoplastic, or other metabolic causes.

Three main tick-borne conditions affect equines: Lyme's disease, anaplasmosis, and piroplasmosis. In the U.S., rare cases of tick paralysis have also been reported.

Lyme's disease results from a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. In the eastern half of the U.S., the organism is carried by the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis. In the west, it’s Ixodes pacificus, the Western deer tick. Signs of illness may include lameness, lethargy, weight loss, skin sensitivity, uveitis, or neurological changes. Antibiotics are the treatment of choice.

Anaplasmosis usually affects horses younger than four years of age. Anaplasma phagocytophilum, a bacterium, causes the disease. You may find your horse has a fever, depression, limb swelling, stumbling, wobbliness, petechiae (small hemorrhages), or intestinal upset. Antibiotics are the treatment of choice.

Piroplasmosis is not prevalent in the U.S. A protozoan organism belonging to the Babesia family is the cause. Signs may be mild: fever, weakness, depression, lack of appetite, weight loss, jaundice, dark urine, and lower limb swelling. One can attempt to treat with an anti-parasitic drug, but it may not be curative. 

Diligent monitoring of your horse for ticks is the key to preventing the development of related diseases.

Carrie Griffith, DVM
Published on 2020-07-16