Ticks Bite – How to Protect Your Horse against Ticks

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM

Few things are hated more among animal owners than ticks. These arachnids – ticks are not insects, but relatives of spiders and scorpions – are difficult to control and can cause major health problems for your equine companions.

Horse-Specific Ticks

Many different tick species exist, but only a few are specific to horses. The tropical horse tick (Dermacentor nitens) and the moose tick or winter tick (Dermacentor albipictus) are one-host species that can spend their entire life span on a horse. On the other hand, multi-host ticks, such as dog or deer ticks, can also be found on horses and are opportunists that can live on multiple animals during their life span.

Tropical horse ticks can be found in the southern regions of Florida and Texas. They prefer to live in horses’ ear canals, but can also be found in the nasal passages and on the mane and tail. Moose ticks can be found in many regions of North America from coast to coast. They tend to target the ears, abdomen, anal area and inner legs. The preferred spots for most ticks are on a horse’s head (including the throatlatch and ears), mane, tail and lower abdomen. Both of these single-host tick species can carry infections that may be transmitted to horses, such as Lyme disease.

Controlling Tick-Prone Environments

The frequency of tick encounters will vary depending on where you live, but the reality is that horses all across the U.S. can be exposed to ticks, and most of the time they don’t show any obvious signs of tick infestation. Some species prefer brushy hedgerows, while others like grassy meadows. Grazing horses can easily pick up ticks as they brush by vegetation or grassy stems.

Tick activity is stimulated by movement, air currents and carbon dioxide exhaled by horses. The goal is to prevent ticks from attaching to your horse and possibly spreading an illness, and the best way to achieve this is to start by managing your horse’s environment.

Destroy Tick Dwellings

Trim pastures, hedgerows and fence lines to take away the ticks’ habitat. Don’t stack brush piles in or near turnout areas. Sun exposure is an enemy of ticks, which can survive snow and winters just fine in most cases, so clearing areas to provide maximum sunlight can help minimize tick activity.

Deter Wildlife

Don’t encourage visits from other wildlife. Many tick species are multi-host opportunists and will travel to your pastures via other animals, such as deer. Do not put hay or grain out for deer in the winter unless you place the feeding area a good distance from your barn.

Recruit Tick Hunters

Consider adding tick predators to your property. If you don’t mind adding egg-collecting to your barn chores, chickens, especially guinea hens, are noted for scarfing down ticks as delicacies. Stick to keeping birds by the horse barns.

Treat Your Property

Spraying your property is another method of control that you can use if you have a large tick population; however, always make sure the product is safe for horses and/or for your horses to graze on sprayed areas. Even if you take precautions, sprays are bound to blow onto pasture areas. Follow the directions exactly. If the label tells you to keep animals off the sprayed areas for a set period of time, keep your horse off the area for at least that long.

Preventive Horse Care

Environmental management can only do so much for tick control. Your next step is to apply a treatment to your horse. One option is to use a spot-on application that provides tick repellent action for up to 14 days. Topical spot-on products also provide protection against flies, gnats and mosquitoes, and have residual effects, so they’re perfect if you can’t check on your horse daily.

Many fly sprays that contain a tick claim are available that can be applied to help keep ticks from getting on or attaching to your horse. Products containing permethrin seem to be the most effective at tick repellency. Don’t count on herbal and essential oil preparations; most of them have no evidence of true effectiveness. Sprays need to be applied as directed with regard to frequency and timing, such as after a bath. Some sprays provide short-term residual action, while others require frequent application.

Balms and roll-on treatments can also help, especially around the ears and throatlatch, but make sure to stick to treatments that are approved for horses. Don’t mix and match products without checking with your veterinarian to make sure that they can be used together.

Tick Removal

Despite taking all these precautions, some ticks may still make their way onto your horse, so performing a daily tick check on your horse is important. Look, and more importantly, feel for any ticks while grooming or when bringing your horse in for the night. Prime areas to search are the head, ears, throatlatch, mane and tail. Be sure to check under the tail, as well, not just the top.

A “tick key” is an invaluable tool for removing attached ticks. These little gadgets help remove the tick without leaving the head behind, which can cause an infection, and prevent contact with the tick’s blood. Do not try the “old wives’” methods of using petroleum jelly or a lit match to make the tick back out; these techniques don’t work and can cause an accident.

Place any removed ticks into a bottle of rubbing alcohol to kill them. Also, mark your calendar on the day you find any ticks. In the case that your horse shows signs of illness, knowing the time of exposure may be important.

Now that you’re armed with tips for tick prevention, hopefully you will have a tick-free year. But just in case, be prepared and take precautions!