Let’s Talk Ticks: What They Do To Livestock & How To Control Them

Ticks spread disease among humans, horses and cattle. Here are facts about these icky arthropods and how to protect yourself and your animals.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: Ragnhild Brosvik/Flickr

Over the past two months, we’ve talked about flies and mosquitoes and how to control them on your farm. No discussion about creepy crawlies would be complete, however, without mentioning ticks. In my book, ticks are the nastiest creepy crawlies of them all. Tiny, elusive and vectors of serious diseases affecting humans and animals, these arthropods can be trouble. Let’s take a closer look.

From the human perspective, in most areas of the United States, we commonly associate ticks with Lyme disease. Currently, the only livestock species that appear to also occasionally suffer from Lyme disease are horses and they seem to develop clinical signs in similar ways that humans and dogs do, experiencing lethargy, joint pain, stiffness and fever.

Anaplasmosis is another tick-borne disease seen in livestock, but this one is a little trickier. Cattle and horses can contract a condition with the same name, but different types. Here’s why. Anaplasmosis is caused by a rickettsia, which is a microscopic organism that lives inside host cells. In horses, anaplasmosis is caused by a specific rickettsia called Anaplasma phagocytophilum. This particular microorganism infects a horse’s white blood cells and causes fever, depression and swollen limbs. Comparatively, in cattle, ticks spread two types of rickettsia: Anaplasma marginale and Anaplasma centrale. Both of these rickettsia infect and destroy cattle red blood cells, leading to extreme anemia. There are no vaccines for this disease.

Many tick-borne diseases are geographically specific. Being aware of what ticks are most common in your area will help you understand the sorts of diseases your herd is susceptible to. For example, cattle fever, spread by the cattle fever tick, has been eradicated from the U.S. with the exception of a handful of counties in Texas along the Mexico border. In contrast, the moose tick is found in northern climates, such as certain areas of Canada. This tick, like its name suggests, can infect moose at such a high rate that an adult moose can die from blood loss.

Ear ticks can be a bother for cattle as well as horses. Although they usually don’t spread disease, they can cause irritation and infection in and along the ear canal.

For tick control, cut down brush and weedy areas of pasture where possible. If this is impractical on your farm, at least cut back overgrown areas immediately near the barn and other commonly used structures. Guinea hens are natural tick-eating machines and can be useful especially on small properties for tick control; however, they can be loud and disruptive and aren’t for everyone. Chemical control is another option: Sprays, rubs, powders and pour-on products are available for most livestock species, but before making an investment, always be aware of withdrawal times and proper use instructions.

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The most effective method of tick control is regular manual inspection of your animals. This is most practical for horses and hobby-size farms. Different species of ticks have different predilection sites, meaning they attach at certain locations. Good places to inspect include the base of the ear, the armpits and groin, and behind the jaw. Most importantly, don’t forget to inspect yourself on a regular basis.

It’s best practice to have a pair of tweezers or tick removers in a first-aid kit at your barn. Then, when you find one attached, pluck it straight out of the skin, grasping firmly where the tick’s head is embedded. Don’t yank at an angle; this increases the chance of leaving a part of the tick still in the skin, which can then become harder to remove and get infected. Afterward, wash the area with water and disinfectant.

If you’re interested, some extension offices at local universities or state agriculture departments offer tick identification and disease testing. Early detection and removal is the best way to prevent tick-borne disease.

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