You’ve probably seen the headlines over the last few days about ticks in the UK – but do you know what it means for you and your pet, or what to do about it?

What is the Big Tick Project?

The Big Tick Project was set up in April 2015 to study the tick population of the UK, as a collaboration between pharmaceutical giant MSD and Bristol University. Over the last year, 1,461 veterinary practices agreed to take part, and between them they have sent 6,372 ticks into the University for analysis!

So, what were the results?

Of the dogs examined, across the country, one in three (31%) was carrying at least one tick at the time they were checked. As nearly 15,000 dogs were looked at, it is likely that this percentage applies to dogs throughout the UK. The researchers are now studying the diseases carried by these ticks – they already know that 3% of ticks carry Lyme Disease, and are hoping to be able to map the distribution of this nasty disease, as well as other conditions such as Babesia canis.

tick problemWhy are ticks a problem?

Ticks can suck a lot of blood (a female may drink ten times her own body weight!), but except in very small puppies, this is unlikely to be particularly dangerous. The bigger worry is transmission of disease. Ticks can carry a wide range of unpleasant infections, including Anaplasma, Ehrlichia, Lyme Disease and a newcomer to the UK, Babesia canis. The biggest worries are:

  • Lyme Disease, caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. This can affect dogs and people, and can cause joint pain, fevers, weakness, brain infections and heart damage. Sometimes, there’s a rash on the skin, but not always. Fortunately, humans cannot catch it from dogs directly, only via a tick bite.
  • Babesia canis, a parasite that attacks a dog’s red blood cells, causing anaemia, difficulty breathing and collapse.

I live in an urban area, surely this doesn’t affect me?

One of the most interesting findings from the study is that the risk of tick infestation is nearly as high in urban and highly populated areas as it is in rural and isolated ones. Wherever you are in the UK – from the inner city to the most rural hamlet – you and your pets are at risk from ticks, and you need to take appropriate precautions.

So what should I do about it?

Sadly, this study confirms that attempting to avoid ticks is almost impossible. There are, however, three steps that you can take to protect your pets from ticks:

  • Repel – use a tick-repellant product. There are a number of collars and spot-on products that contain permethrin derivatives that will repel ticks. The most effective drugs are only available on prescription from your vet, so make sure you talk to them about the options. Bear in mind also that most repellant products are lethally toxic to cats!
  • Kill – unfortunately, no repellant is 100% effective, so it’s important that you use a product that will kill the creatures if they do bite. The good news is that ticks don’t transmit disease the instant that they bite – the risk of infection in the first 24-48 hours is pretty low. This is because the critters spend this time getting themselves firmly attached before they begin backwashing their saliva, spreading disease. Therefore, any product that will kill the tick quickly enough will minimise the risk – there are a huge range of tick-killing spot-ons and tablets, so talk to your vet for advice.
  • Remove – you should check your pet at least daily, and certainly after a walk or run. If you find a tick, don’t put anything on it (white spirit, cigarette ends etc will kill the tick, but they’ll also make it vomit, increasing the disease risk). Instead, use a tick-hook to gently twist the beastie off and then throw it down the toilet or onto the fire!

 If you’re concerned about ticks, talk to your vet for treatment options.