German shepherd running on grass off leash
There are more opportunities for dogs to pick up ticks while running through the bushes and tall grass in off-leash parks. Photo: Caitlin Taylor.

Are off-leash dog parks a ‘ticking’ time bomb?

For many dog owners, warmer weather means that trips to the local off-leash dog park are a regular occurrence. But more time at the park may mean a higher chance of picking up a few passengers on the way — including ticks.

By Stephanie Minkova

Off-leash dog parks are becoming increasingly popular in cities and can be a great source of exercise and social interaction for our furry friends. However, these parks may also spread diseases and parasites, some of which can affect people. One example is Lyme disease, the most common tick-borne illness in North America.

Last summer, I was part of a research team at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) that identified ticks found on animals, people and the environment in Saskatchewan. I investigated the abundance of ticks in off-leash dog parks compared to natural parks and agricultural land in Saskatchewan. If you saw people dressed in white and dragging pillow cases around your favourite dog park or nature hike around Saskatoon last year, one of those people might have been me!

Dogs are great hosts for the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) that’s commonly found in Saskatchewan. Off-leash dog parks can have many dogs running around with few restrictions, so there are more opportunities for dogs to pick up ticks while running through the bushes and tall grass.

That’s why I expected to see more ticks in dog parks than other places. Instead, I found that off-leash dog parks in Saskatoon had significantly lower numbers of ticks as well as lower tick diversity in comparison to other sites. 

This could be because many dogs are on tick control medications. As well, ticks might not have time to feed and fall off while the dog is still at the park, and vigilant dog owners will likely remove and kill ticks before their next visit. Finally, heavy traffic in dog parks could drive away other wildlife that may be necessary for a tick to complete its life cycle. 

My research supervisor, Dr. Emily Jenkins, is a professor of veterinary parasitology in the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology. Dr. Jenkins has been interested in the crossover between wildlife, domestic animal and human health (One Health) for most of her career. Her work includes ectoparasites (parasites that live on their hosts’ external surface) — such as ticks and fleas — that are becoming a more visible issue for animal owners and veterinarians.  

“With climate change, we’re only going to see more vectors and vector-borne diseases,” says Dr. Jenkins.

Working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Dr. Jenkins and other research team members are conducting passive and active surveillance of tick populations in the province. Passive surveillance is mainly conducted through eTick, an online platform that allows users to submit photos of ticks that they found. Experts identify the tick species and their results are published online so the public can see the photos of ticks and a map showing where they were collected. 

“eTick acts as a baseline for tracking tick populations. We can use this data to start linking to climate, and human behaviour. This kind of surveillance, which is easy for the public to engage in and get instant answers, is so valuable,” says Dr. Jenkins.

“They can access the public data themselves — putting this tool in their hands is so empowering.”

Active surveillance involves a more hands-on approach where researchers systematically choose and survey different regions in Saskatchewan for tick populations. What we’re especially looking for is the blacklegged tick (also known as the deer tick) — the vector for Lyme disease. Whenever a blacklegged tick is reported on eTick, a team goes out to drag the area to ensure that this tick species has not yet become established in Saskatchewan.

Active surveillance also tracks native ticks in the province, such as the American dog tick and the Rocky Mountain spotted tick (Dermacentor andersoni). While these species don’t carry Lyme disease, they can carry other disease-causing agents, so it’s important to keep an eye on their numbers and distribution in the province.  

Can we definitively say that there are fewer ticks at off-leash dog parks compared to other parks? No. There are habitat differences between off-leash dog parks and other natural sites where we sampled. As well, this was only the first year that we surveyed tick numbers at off-leash dog parks.

But what we do know is that good tick control is key to prevent taking ticks home along with your dog. Here are some important tips to follow: 

  • avoid “tick hotspots” like tall grass and shrubby areas on hot, humid, windless days
  • thoroughly “tick check” yourself and your dog after a visit to the dog park
  • ask your veterinarian to prescribe a tick-control product for your pet and follow their guidelines

If you’re concerned that your dog has been bitten by a tick and your pet is showing signs such as lameness, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, abnormal behaviour or loss of appetite, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. 

But remember, vets can’t test for Lyme disease until at least six to eight weeks after a tick bite, and dogs don’t get sick from Lyme disease very often — especially in Saskatchewan. And that’s good news!

Stephanie Minkova of Delta, B.C. is a second-year veterinary student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) who worked as a summer research student in 2022. Her story is part of a series of articles written by WCVM summer research students.