5 Tick Safeguards for Your Yard

In honor of Lyme Disease Awareness Month, here are small tasks you can do to help protect pets (and people) year-round

When your dog tracks mud through your house after a day of playing in the backyard, it may be bringing something scarier than dirt inside. Disease-carrying ticks love lurking in outside plants and backyard-bordering woodland almost as much as they love latching onto Bailey and Bella. With May being Lyme Disease Awareness Month, it’s a fitting time to ensure that pets and people are protected. And experts say making a few strategic landscaping choices can help keep the bite-happy bugs at bay.

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Ticks can pose a threat throughout the year, says veterinarian Susan O’Bell of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. With shorter, warmer winters, ticks that normally would be wiped out by extreme cold are sticking around longer, O’Bell says.

Warmer months also typically mean more time outside for humans and pets, which could result in increased exposure to Lyme disease — an illness that can spread to the joints, heart or nervous system if left untreated — and other tick-borne problems.

O’Bell estimates that 50 to 70 percent of deer ticks in the Northeast carry Lyme disease-causing bacteria. “So the odds are not in our dog’s favor if a tick is able to attach and feed for long enough,” she says.

People can’t catch Lyme disease from their pets, but there is a chance that a dog or cat could carry an infected tick inside where it could get to humans.

Deer ticks can also transmit anaplasmosis (which can turn serious if not correctly treated), babesiosis (which infects red blood cells), the rare Powassan virus (which can cause long-term neurological problems) and other diseases. Illnesses from tick, flea and mosquito bites tripled from 2004 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while ticks and tick-borne diseases are particularly concentrated in the Northeast, they can show up anywhere. Houses that back up to large wooded areas are most susceptible, O’Bell says.

A catio, or outdoor cat enclosure, can give cats a taste of outdoor life while protecting them from dangers like ticks.

Cats are at a lower risk for Lyme disease than dogs (or humans), but they can still get seriously sick with things like babesiosis and tularemia, a potentially deadly disease, from ticks. “The good news for cats is that they need never be outside, unlike dogs,” O’Bell says.

She and her colleagues recommend that cats live inside exclusively, as it greatly reduces their exposure to things like ticks. But if your dogs and cats are spending time outside, O’Bell says there are several steps you can take to make the yard less appealing to ticks.

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5 Backyard Precautions to Take Against Ticks

  • Build a barrier.

Several of her clients reported positive results from creating a wood-chip or gravel barrier, at least 3 feet wide, between patios and lawns and wild or wooded areas, O’Bell says. “This tends to restrict tick migration into the yard,” she says.

  • Tame tall plants.

The tall grasses and shrubs that border yards or surround houses can be “prime tick resting areas,” O’Bell says. She suggests keeping the plants short or removing them altogether. If you love your naturalistic planting, consider a wide bark or gravel barrier between it and your favorite backyard gathering areas.

  • Keep the lawn short.

Regularly mowing a lawn cuts down on the chance for ticks to hide in overgrown blades of grass.

  • Lose the leaves.

Fallen leaves should be raked up frequently, O’Bell says.

  • Store soft furniture elsewhere.

As if ticks didn’t already have enough natural hiding places in the yard, they also like to hide out in outdoor furniture cushions. Store such soft furnishings elsewhere or check them often.

Even after you’ve taken these preventative steps, there’s always still the chance that a tick could find its way onto your dog, cat, horse or other pet.

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O’Bell stresses the importance of medicated preventative treatments like special collars or pills. If pets spend time outside, they should be checked for ticks daily. Owners should brush their fingers through their pet’s fur, feeling for any small bumps, paying special attention to more concealed areas like the animal’s limb joints and between its toes.

Remove any ticks with tweezers and one steady-motion pull, being careful not to crush the tick, as that can lead to infection. You should then wash the pet’s skin with soap and warm water, and dispose of the tick by leaving it in about a half-inch of rubbing alcohol in a screw-top jar until it dies or by flushing it down the toilet (ticks are tough little pests and have been known to crawl out of the drain or garbage can).

Symptoms of tick-borne illness in pets can include vomiting, weakness in the hind limbs, unsteadiness, partial loss of muscle movement or a malaise the animal “can’t seem to shake,” O’Bell says. If you spot any of these, see a veterinarian right away.

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