What are ticks?
Ticks are small parasites that can attach to cats and dogs to feed from their blood. Generally, ticks are unpleasant but pose no real threat to health, though recently there has been an increase in tick-borne diseases in the UK.
Ticks are arachnids, related to both spiders and mites. They are found in grassy areas such as fields and meadows, as well as some woodland. Ticks are present year-round but tend to be more active in the warmer summer months.
When a tick is ready to feed, it climbs to the tip of a grass blade and waits for an animal to pass by. The tick reaches out and, when an animal brushes past, it grabs hold of the fur. This is known as “questing”. Ticks usually remain attached to a host for 2-4 days, before dropping off into the environment. They then reproduce before questing again when they are ready for another feed.
An unfed tick is dark brown and only a few millimetres in size. Once attached to a host and feeding, they can rapidly swell to the size of a jellybean. Ticks are often found on farm animals and small mammals such as squirrels, rabbits and hedgehogs, but will also attach to cats, dogs or even people given the chance. It’s important to check pets after countryside walks, as well as your own legs! Ticks are often found on the legs and abdomen and can grab onto long-haired pets so always check between the fur.
What do I do if my pet has ticks?
Ticks attach firmly to the skin and cannot be simply pulled off. If they are forcefully removed their mouthparts can become detached and remain stuck in the skin. This can be painful for the cat or dog and lead to problems such as infections. A special tick hook can be used to quickly and painlessly remove the entire tick. These can be purchased at pet shops, online or at the practice and will easily fit into a pocket or bag. The nurses at your local practice will be happy to demonstrate how to use it if you are unsure.
Are ticks dangerous?
Many ticks are harmless to the host, only causing problems if they are improperly removed leaving mouthparts behind.
Some ticks can carry infectious diseases, which can be passed into the bloodstream during the feeding process. Generally, ticks are unaffected, meaning they can pass infection to host after host as the tick moves through its life cycle. There are three main diseases spread by ticks; Lyme Disease, Babesiosis, and Ehrlichiosis. These can affect dogs but not cats.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi but only 10% of dogs contracting the bacteria become unwell. Clinical symptoms occur weeks to months after infection, most commonly; fever, lethargy and joint pain. Rarely the disease becomes chronic or will affect the kidneys or heart. Lyme disease can be diagnosed with a blood test and easily treated, though it is uncommon in the UK.
Babesia is widespread in warmer countries but was unheard of in dogs in the UK until early 2016. The parasites infect red blood cells which the body then tries to destroy, rapidly leading to severe, potentially fatal anaemia. Diagnosis is made with blood tests, but treatment can be difficult. Survival rates are good if the disease is caught early, though some dogs will suffer relapses.
Ehrlichia is caused by rickettsial bacteria, which produce illness within a few weeks of a tick bite. Signs are often vague but include dogs being generally unwell, fever, anorexia, gastrointestinal upset and bleeding. It can be diagnosed with a blood test and is easily treated with specific antibiotics. Ehrlichiosis is extremely rare in the UK.
How can I protect against ticks?
Prevention is certainly better than cure, and anti-tick products are widely available. Routine tick prevention can be provided using regular spot-on treatments, topical sprays or long-lasting collars. Depending on the product they should be used alongside or instead of your pets’ regular parasite control.
Some products work by repelling or killing the ticks after they attach, as limiting contact time dramatically reduces the risk of disease transmission. It is still advisable to check and manually remove any ticks identified after walking in higher risk areas. Your vet or nurse will be happy to discuss the most appropriate tick prevention for your pets.
Full tick treatment is included in membership of The Healthy Pet Club.