Ticks on Your Horse? Tips for Dealing with Ticks as Spring Approaches

A deer tick commonly found on horses.
A deer tick commonly found on horses. EquiMed

Newsdate: February 25, 2020, 11:00 am
Location: GILROY, California

Finally, cold winter weather is abating and it is time to enjoy the spring-time warmth. The winter makes horse ownership a challenge in many ways, and just when horse owners think the worst is over,a new problem develops...TICKS.

Dermacentor albipictus tick known as the 'winter tick'.

Dermacentor albipictus tick known as the 'winter tick

March, April, May, and June, then Oct, Nov, and Dec are the main times when multiple tick attachments to horses are found, though ticks can be found year round.
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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.

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 several ticks from our horses and ourselves each day especially if people and horses are out in the country side moving about in vegetation.

Tick species can be generally categorized into two different family groups: hard ticks (Ixodids) and soft ticks (Argasids). Hard ticks have a scutum, a hardened dorsal plate or shield on the back of the tick, and are more commonly seen. Soft ticks do not have a scutum and are less prevalent.

Distribution and activity of each species of ticks that in the United States is both geographical and seasonal. While most tick species in the U.S. are active in moderate climates from the spring through the fall, some tick species in warmer parts of the country can be active year round. Additionally, one tick in particular, The Dermacentor tick is active primarily in the winter throughout the continental U.S.

There are four stages in the life cycle of the tick: the egg, the 6-legged larvae or seed tick, the 8-legged nymph, and the adult (male and female). Transition from one stage to the next is made by one or more moltings (shedding of the cuticle). After hatching from eggs, ticks must ingest a blood meal from a host during each successive life stage to survive.

Many tick species have a 3-host life cycle and some have a 1-host life cycle.In ticks with a 3-host life cycle, development of the tick from larvae to nymph to adult requires feeding on a different host at each stage (i.e. 3 different host species are needed to mature to adult stage).

The larva and nymphs of these ticks usually feed on a variety of host species, such as birds and small mammals, while the adult stages often feed on larger mammals such as cattle, horses, and deer. Three-host ticks typically can complete their life cycle in one to two years.

Ticks with a 1-host life cycle will attach to a specific host in the larval stage and will molt into the nymph and adult stages all on the same host. One-host ticks can complete their life cycle in a few months to a year.

Examination of horses for the presence of ticks involves both visualization and careful palpation over all parts of the horse with specific focus on locations in which certain tick species prefer to attach. This combination of visualization and palpation in the examination for ticks is termed “scratching” for ticks.

Scratching for ticks is a systematic procedure. Taking into account the safety of the examiner and the horse, attempts should be made to thoroughly examine the following anatomical locations:

  • Beginning at the horse’s head, examine the false nostrils visually and palpate with a forefinger;
  • Slowly palpate the ears beginning around the base of each ear, moving to the caudal side of the pinna, and then around to the rostral side of the pinna of each ear sliding a finger down toward the ear canal as far as the horse will allow. (Note: some ear ticks may attach further down the ear canal than is reasonable to palpate, so consider performing an otoscopic exam on horses that have clinical signs of tick-borne disease, especially tick paralysis)
  • Move to the forelock of the mane and with thumb opposed to fingers, palpate the forelock and continue palpating down the mane from the forelock to the withers.
  • Examine and palpate the submandibular/intermandibular space with fingers of the flattened hand feeling for any unevenness of the skin.
  • Examine and palpate with a flattened hand down each side of the neck and to the center of the chest between the forelegs
  • Examine visually and palpate the axilla of one side.
  • Examine and palpate the posterior fetlock to the coronet of the front foot.
  • Examine and palpate along the midline from the center of the chest caudally to the abdomen
  • Visually examine the udder/scrotum area on one side.
  • Examine visually and palpate the tail, perineum, and between the hindquarters including the inner thigh of each side.
  • Examine and palpate the posterior fetlock to the coronet of the back foot
  • Examine the udder/scrotum of the other side.
  • Examine and palpate the posterior fetlock to the coronet of the other back foot.
  • Examine and palpate the posterior fetlock to the coronet of the other front foot.
  • Examine visually and palpate the axilla of the other side.

If ticks are found in the process of scratching, they should be removed carefully so as not to break off the capitulum, the portion of the tick anatomy that attaches the head to the body of the tick. This is especially important in ticks with long mouth parts. Forceps may be useful to grasp the tick near the head end as close to the skin of the host as possible and gently pull upward with steady, even pressure.

If the mouth parts break off, remove them separately with the forceps. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area with iodine/betadine scrub and isopropyl alcohol or soap and water.

Ticks can also be collected from the environment (grass and other vegetation) by dragging a light colored flannel cloth over the area. This is termed “dragging” for ticks. The drag is made by attaching one end of the flannel cloth (30” x 60”) to a piece of wood, such as a broomstick, to which a strong cord is attached for a towline.

Other more sophisticated tick traps, such as those that use CO2 to attract ticks to a bait station, can also be used. Once collected, ticks can be placed in a blood collection tube or screw cap vial and preserved in 70% isopropyl alcohol. In this condition, they can be submitted to a laboratory for specific identification or confirmation of your field identification.

For additional information including photos of ticks and horse diseases associated with ticks, visit the AAEP website: https://aaep.org/sites/default/files/Guidelines/AAEP-ExternalParasites071316Final.pdf

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

Author picture

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..