Ticks – they seem to be everywhere this year, in your pastures and on your horse. What do you need to know to protect your horse?
Why do I need to be concerned? One of the most common tick-borne diseases in this area is Lyme Disease. Lyme Disease is a bacterial, tick-transmitted disease of animals and people. Areas of the country most commonly infected are the northeast (particularly the New England states), the upper Midwest, and the Pacific coast. People with pets or horses that have been diagnosed with Lyme disease know the devastating effects and the high cost of treatment. The tick that causes the most concern for carrying Lyme disease is the “deer tick” or “black legged tick.” When a person or animal is bitten by a tick that is infected with the spirochetal bacterium Borrelia burgdoferi, it can lead to Lyme Disease. Since the deer tick is not selective about where its next blood meal comes from, a variety of wild and domestic animals are at risk: humans, rodents, cats, dogs, birds, cattle, and horses.
When and where can I find ticks on my horse? The spring months of March, April, May, and June, and the fall months of October, November, and December are the most common time for tick attachments. Ticks like to attach on the neck, chest, throat, ears, jowl, and chin of a horse. In geldings, the tick seems to like the genital area the best. So, don’t forget to look at your horse’s underbelly when doing your tick checks!
How can I protect my horse?
- Know how to spot ticks! See above tick guide, from the National Institutes of Health. The most common tick to infest horses is the deer tick.
- Control tick-prone environments. The best way to prevent your horse from getting ticks is to properly manage its environment. Some suggestions include:
- Destroy tick dwellings: trim bushes, hedgerows, and fence lines to get rid of tick habitat. Clean up your pasture and barn area – ticks hate sunlight so don’t give them a place to hide.
- Deter wildlife: most ticks will travel to your farm on other species, such as deer; don’t encourage these species in and around your barn area.
- Recruit tick hunters: consider adding some tick predators to your barn family. Chickens and guinea hens love to eat ticks!
- Treat your property: spraying your property is always a choice, but remember to read the labels and make sure the product you use is safe for your horses. If you spray, don’t let your chickens or guinea hens out to graze!
- Preventative Horse Care
- Spot-on products or fly spray. Use products that contain cypermethrin or permethrin to provide several hours of protection. Make sure to treat legs and underbellies especially if you are trail riding through infested areas. Check your horse regularly. Examine your horses daily. A simple exam running your hand over the horse’s body can help reveal a small lump where a tick may be attached. Contact your veterinarian for the best advice for your area.
- Remove Ticks. Brushing will not remove a tick. To remove a tick use tweezers and grasp it as close to the host’s skin as possible, grasping the head of the tick and pulling straight back, taking care not to squish the blood-filled body. Squishing the body of the tick will inject the spirochetes into the animal. Most horses tolerate tick removal well. Place a small dab of antibiotic ointment on the removal site to help heal the wound quicker and help the hair grow back faster (if the hair is missing). The ointment may also help to 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. If the tick is removed before the 12-24 hour time period, the chances of the animal contracting Lyme Disease is slim. Unfortunately, it is not often known how long the tick has been attached, and that is when caution should be used. After removing a tick, you want to be sure it is not alive, to attach to or possibly infect another host. Keep a small jar of rubbing alcohol in the grooming area of your barn. Drop the tick in, and it will quickly die .
How do I know if my horse has Lyme Disease? There has not been much research done on Lyme Disease in horses and it has been debated whether a horse can even get Lyme Disease. It has been found that 75% of horses living in areas with high concentrations of ticks will test positive for antibodies to the organism. Horses living in areas infected with ticks may go on to develop symptoms of Lyme Disease or may remain clinically healthy. Lyme Disease occurs in less than 10% of the horses in cases when the tick has attached.
- Symptoms of Lyme Disease in horses – Several syndromes have been attributed to Lyme Disease in domestic animals, including limb and joint disease and renal, neurologic, and cardiac abnormalities. In horses specifically, signs include fever, lameness that can’t be explained by injury, poor performance, personality changes (depression), laminitis or founder, arthritis, edema, joint swelling, eye inflammation, and encephalitis. Since these symptoms are the same as many other horse ailments a blood test must be obtained to indicate if the horse has been exposed to Borrelia burgdorferi.
Treatment of Lyme Disease: Lyme Disease is treated with antibiotics over several weeks. If it is in fact Lyme Disease, a positive response to the therapy is usually observed within 2-5 days after start of antibiotic treatment. Anti-inflammatory drugs may also be used to help the horse be more comfortable. Probiotics may be used to help replace the normal intestinal bacteria killed by the antibiotics. If left untreated, the disease can lead to renal failure, neurological issues, and death. Unfortunately, there is not a vaccine for Lyme Disease currently licensed for horses. If you are experiencing tick issues with your horses or other pets, it is prudent to discuss prevention and treatment with your veterinarians.
- Protecting Horses from Ticks (Article)
- Overview of Lyme Borreliosis (Webpage)
- What to Know During Tick Season (Article)
- Tick Control in Horses (Article)
- Tick Bites – How to Protect Your Horse Against Ticks
- Tick Borne Diseases (Printable PDF)
- Horses and Ticks (OSU Video)
By Carol K. Ward, County 4-H Agent, Rutgers Cooperative Extension and Mary Howard, Gloucester County 4-H Equine Science Volunteer