Tick Defensive Tactics

It's a battle, but these disease-carrying insects must be taken seriously.
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It's a battle, but these disease-carrying insects must be taken seriously.
Ticks like dark areas like woods.

Ticks like dark areas like woods.

We hate ticks, and we know you do, too! And effective products are out there. You just need to zero-in on the right ingredients.

Ticks are usually found in the horse’s mane and tail, but they may attach anywhere on the body. The longer hairs on the back of the fetlock are another favorite spot. And, yes, some horses seem to be more tick “magnets” than others. 

Ticks seem to be everywhere. Simply riding through a wooded area can result in many ticks, especially if you have to duck a branch or two to get where you’re going. Even horses pastured in cleared fields adjacent to wooded areas often get infested.

Tick bites are worrisome because they spread disease and because the bites can cause skin reactions, sometimes with infection. Usually, by the time the bite is discovered, horses have large weeping, crusty areas in the mane that eventually cause hair loss as well.

Check your horse daily for ticks, especially head, throatlatch, belly and under the tail. Remember that ticks need to be attached for one to two days to transmit the disease-causing organism. A quick daily check could save your horse from this illness and you from some expensive veterinary care.

Best Product Choices

We knew Buzz Guard, from EarthHeart (www.earthheartinc.com, 847-551-1806), works well on dogs, so we sent it to a reader with a horse plagued by ticks in her ears. She said that this “tick magnet” horse doesn’t like her ears handled and required two people to do the treatments, which meant it was applied less frequently than she’d like.

Still, the product worked well, and the owner felt more frequent applications would help even more on that horse. The product worked very well on her other horses. Cost is $11.98 for two ounces. If you have serious tick problems, we think it’s worth a try.

For the most part, however, tick dips, sprays and powders sold for use in other species are NOT necessarily safe for use on horses. We’ve heard anecdotal tales that the dog spot treatment Frontline works on horses, too. However, there’s no verification that it works. And, if you go to the Merial website, they advice you not to use it on other animals. We actually think the cost is prohibitive for use on horses, too.

Your best bet, if you’re in a heavy tick area, is to look for a product that states it will repel ticks. Some ingredients are more effective than others. Synthetic pyrethrins, such as resmetrin and cypermethrin, are more effective than the natural pyrethrins. Natural pyrethrins are only effective in high concentrations (products identified as “concentrated”). Other natural repellents, such as citronella, are not scientifically proven to be very effective.

Permethrin sprays have good repellent action. Saturate the hair of the lower legs, mane and tail down to the skin. Apply to face/ears with a rag.

Appropriate equine products include:

Even with these products, however, it’s unrealistic to expect 100% protection.

Your best defense is to meticulously check on a daily basis for attached ticks. Make it part of your daily grooming process. Getting those ticks off within 24 hours of a bite lessens the chances of the spread of disease, although there’s some new evidence that indicates it could take less time. Either way, when you see the tick, remove the tick.

To remove a tick, place tweezers as close to the skin as possible, grasp the tick firmly and pull. Heads/mouth parts are rarely left behind. Should this happen, however, use the tweezers to pull out the remaining parts.

And practice preventive methods around your farm, too:

  • Mow pastures (which is good pasture management anyway). Trim back brushy areas. There are all kinds of rumors about this bush or that attracting ticks. We couldn’t find proof. Some bushes attract deer, however, which can carry ticks to the bush.
  • Discourage wildlife.
  • Keep any woodpiles well away from your horse’s areas.
  • Get some chickens or guinea hens. These birds are known for their tick-eating appetites. If your tick population is thriving despite all of this, you may want to investigate the use of a pesticide that will kill or repel the ticks.

Ear Ticks

Ear ticks can be a considerable source of pain, making the horse resistant to handling the ears, and in some cases have been known to cause paralysis. Signs include headshaking, ear drooping, rubbing the ear, resistance to having the ears touched. Severe cases may have a secondary bacterial infection, or may actually penetrate the ear drum and cause meningitis.

You can often see them by shining a light into the ear canal, but some of the ticks may be too deep to see. Black, waxy debris may also be present in the ear.

Wiping the ear with a swab or gauze pad (horse permitting) may remove some loosely attached ticks. Do not try to physically remove ticks because 1) the horse is likely to resist, increasing the risk of leaving the tick head behind, and 2) there are likely ticks deeper in the ear that can't be removed by hand. Serious ear tick invasions may require your vet, who can administer drugs into the ear.

Oral ivermectin will kill ticks that are attached and feeding. Use a regular deworming dose. You can use permethrin or pyrethrin/piperonly butoxide, at regular fly-spray strength, dripped into the ear canal. Natural pyrethrin, as found in chrysanthemum-based sprays, doesn't work well. To prevent the ticks from entering, wipe the ear and base of the ear with one of these insecticides daily.

Bottom Line

There’s no one perfect tick repellent. If you’re in a tick area, choose fly sprays that contain the synthetic pyrethrins resmetrin and/or cypermethrin or purchase permethrin.

Practice prevention to discourage ticks in the area and remove any you see ASAP.

Consider a regular dose of the dewormer ivermectin for infestations.

Avoid products not intended for use on horses. If you’re not sure, check with your veterinarian.