Ask a hundred people to name a type of arachnid and it’s likely nearly all would say a spider. But there is another eight-legged beastie that lives widespread in the UK. This one is much more relevant to our pets – the tick. There are over twenty known species of tick in the country. But the three most common are Ixodes ricinus (the sheep tick), Ixodes hexagonus (the hedgehog tick) and Ixodes canisuga (the fox tick). Aside from being a nuisance, ticks have the potential to spread disease to both animals and humans, some of which can be quite serious. Because of this, it is vital to try to control both our pets’ and our own exposure to them. To do so successfully, we need to understand how they live.
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What are ticks?
Ticks are small parasites that range in size from 0.5mm to 10mm depending on what stage of their lifecycle they are in. They are most commonly found in woodland and grassland and survive by sucking blood from their host. As well as attaching to animals such as dogs, sheep and deer, ticks can also attach to humans. It is worth noting their names can be misleading – for example sheep ticks don’t just attach to sheep.
The tick lifecycle
Most ticks will go through a four-stage life cycle, starting with the egg. An adult female tick can lay up to 3000 eggs at a time. She will lay the eggs at ground level where they will hatch into 6-legged larvae. The larvae will then climb to the tips of vegetation in order to seek out a passing host, usually a small mammal. They are able to do this as they can sense the carbon dioxide given off by the animal, alongside changes in light and body-heat. Ticks cannot jump or fly but will climb onto the host. Once onboard, they will take on a blood meal, before dropping off back into the environment.
Over the course of the next year, the larvae will moult into nymphs and repeat the same process. But this time, often choosing a larger host. When the nymphs return to the environment, they will again moult over the following year, this time to become adult ticks. Once they have fed from a host, the adult ticks will drop off and find a mate. The lifecycle is completed by the females laying eggs before they die.
Why can ticks be dangerous?
The danger from ticks lies in their potential to transmit diseases. Not all ticks will be infected but there is no way to tell if they are or not. For humans, the main worry is Lyme disease. We can also see Lyme disease in our pets but there are others that we ought to be aware of including babesiosis and anaplasmosis. Although these are more common elsewhere in the world, due to warmer climatic conditions in the UK and the popularity of travelling abroad with your dog, it is highly likely we will start to see these diseases more often in the UK. The time it takes for a tick to feed can last from a few hours to a few days. Though it is thought that the transmission of any disease doesn’t begin until after the first 24 hours of a blood meal.
No longer a seasonal problem
Traditionally, there are two main tick seasons in the UK – once in Spring and once in Autumn. However, it isn’t uncommon to find ticks on our pets all year round, likely due to our climate gradually warming. In order to reduce the risk that ticks can pose to your pet, it is vital to instill a thorough programme of preventative tick treatment. This can be in the form of a tablet, a ‘spot-on’ or a collar. However, in order to be exposed to the drug, the tick will still have to attach and begin to feed. Because of this, even treated animals can carry ticks, albeit for a very short length of time.
So it can also be handy to know how to remove them properly. The best method is using a tick removal device; which is slid under the body of the tick and twisted whilst gently pulling upwards. This will prevent the head being left in the skin which can easily occur if the tick is removed with fingers or tweezers.
It is also good practice to check your dog regularly, especially if you walk through woodland or grassy fields. Carefully run your fingers over and through their coat and pay particular attention to thinner skinned areas such as ears, armpits and the groin. You’re feeling for a soft lump on the outside of the skin, but don’t try to remove it unless you’re sure it’s a tick – warts and skin tags can look and feel very similar! If in doubt, ask your vet to check it out.