Ticks versus skin tags in dogs: how to tell the difference? Let's face it: ticks and skin tags may often look quite similar, so much so, that dog owners may understandably worry. The main concern? You don't want to forcibly remove with tweezers what may in reality turn out to be a tick! At the same time though, you don't want to leave a tick attached for too long considering that the longer attached, the greater the risk for it of causing a potentially debilitating tick-borne disease. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana discusses ticks versus skin tags in dogs pointing out their main differences and similarities.
You were cuddling with your beloved furry baby and suddenly you felt a small, tear-shaped bump under its fur. Well, more often than not, there are two possible scenarios – either your dog has grown a skin tag or it has a tick infestation. Although both condition are similar at first, they require different medical attention and have different outcomes.
Skin Tags in Dogs
Skin tags can be defined as thin and often floppy skin growths made of connective tissue. They usually have the same color as the dog’s skin. However, skin tags are not always easy to spot. More often than not, it is easier to feel them than to actually see them. This applies particularly for darker dogs. The situation is a bit easier in light-haired dogs with pinkish skins, in which skin tags are more striking.
Generally speaking, skin tags can appear anywhere on the dog’s body. However, they are more likely to appear on places where skin rubs against skin. The exact causative agent is not determined. It is believed that the most common skin tag-causing culprits include: certain parasites, improper skin care, improper nutrition, ill-fitting collars and irritants.
As a condition, skin tags do not have a breed predisposition. However, statistics show that they are more common among larger dogs. Also they are more common in middle-aged and old dogs.
In most cases, skin tags should be left alone. The presence of skin tag warrants a trip to the vet’s office if:
- The dog is constantly biting and scratching the area around the skin tag
- The skin tag is located on an inconvenient place (that is frequently irritated)
- The skin tag becomes infected
- The skin tag has grown dramatically or changed its shape and color.
If necessary, the vet may suggest removing the skin tag. This can be achieved through three different approaches:
- Cryosurgery – a new and particularly safe technique that destroys the skin growth by using extreme cold
- Regular surgery – surgical removal of the skin growth
- Cauterization – a technique that destroys the skin growth by burning it.
Ticks in Dogs
Ticks are a group of bloodsucking arachnid parasites. They live at ground level and are stimulated into activity by triggers such as heat, motion, vibration or shadow which indicate a potential host is nearby. Once it has climbed onto a host, a tick inserts its head through the skin and feeds, gorging itself with blood.
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Ticks have a four-stage life cycle. These stages are egg, six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph and adult. Usually, during each of the last three stages the tick has to feed on a host, such as a dog,in order to proceed to the next stage. Much of a tick’s life is spent sitting on a blade of grass or a leaf, waiting for a suitable host to pass by.
A female tick lays thousands of eggs and then dies. Larvae hatch from the eggs a few weeks later, feed (if they can find a host) and grow into nymphs over a period of 2 to 3 weeks. The same pattern is repeated for the transformation from nymph to adult.
Dogs are attractive to the brown dog tick, Rhipicephalus sanguineus, found worldwide. Two other tick species pose particular hazards: Dermacentor variabilis in North America, and the paralysis tick, Ixodes Holocyclus, in Eastern Australia. Various other species affect dogs in different parts of the world.
A heavy tick infestation can lead to anemia through blood loss. Ticks are also responsible for skin problems, caused by their irritating saliva, or paralysis, due to a poison (neurotoxin) in their saliva. They can also trigger bacterial skin infections.
Ticks transmit a variety of infectious diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and babesiosis. These diseases are not passed on until a tick has been attached and feeding for several hours. Ticks and tick-borne diseases are a problem during spring and summer in temperate climates, and all year round in warmer regions.
A tick infestation is diagnosed by finding one or more ticks on the dog’s skin. To remove a tick, use tweezers to grasp it as close as possible to the dog’s skin and then pull it slowly out. Be sure to wear gloves for this task, because a tick’s blood may contain organisms that are dangerous to humans.
After the tick has been removed, clean the bite area with an antiseptic. If it is possible that the tick was feeding on the dog for several hours, watch out for signs of possible tick-borne disease in the dog.
Ticks can be prevented from attaching to a dog with the use of products such as collars and spot-on preventatives. Note that some tick-prevention drugs are effective only against certain varieties of tick. Always examine your dog thoroughly after a walk through tick-infested areas.
Skin Tags Versus Ticks in Dogs
If you want to determine whether you are dealing with a skin tag or a tick, follow these two simple steps:
- Carefully examine the suspicious formation. Ticks are oval and brown or reddish in color. As time passes, they become larger and grayish in color. Plus, near the head, on the sides, ticks have tiny legs. Skin tags are tear-shaped, floppier and usually flatter than ticks. They are the same color as the dog’s skin.
- Check behind ears and between toes. Ticks are pesky little parasites and often dwell in hidden places. On the flip side, skin tags can appear anywhere on the dog’s body, especially if there is excessive rubbing involved.
Knowing the difference between a skin tag and a tick is important not only for your dog but also for you (since ticks are also dangerous for humans). While ticks are unwelcomed pests that can carry a plethora of life-threatening pathogens and require urgent treatment, skin tags are relatively benign growths that rarely require medical management.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.
She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.