Autumn is peak tick season in much of the UK… so how can we fend off these nasty parasites? Do we need to? What are the risks? And what is the best product?

What are ticks?

Ticks are small, spider-like blood-sucking insects that can attach to animals and humans. After grabbing onto the skin, they then feed on the blood of the host, becoming larger and larger until they fall off. At first, the tick is brown-black in colour but as they become engorged with blood, they turn a bluish colour, ending up about the size of a pea. Usually, the bite from a tick is harmless. But sometimes an inflammatory or allergic reaction can be seen on the skin.

Where are ticks found?

Ticks are unable to fly or jump, instead, they crawl from plants onto their host. They have to live in a relatively humid environment to prevent drying out. Therefore they are usually found in woodland, moorland or grassy areas. After walking your dog in these areas, especially if there are a lot of deer or sheep in the area, you should check the skin carefully to ensure that they haven’t picked up a visitor!

What are the different types of ticks?

Although there are over twenty different species of tick in Britain, not all of them will be found on our pets as they have adapted to live in different types of environments, feeding off particular animals. The most common tick to be found on our pets is Ixodes ricinus, the sheep tick. In a recent study, nearly one in three dogs were found to be carrying ticks. 

Are ticks harmful to pets?

Ixodes ricinus is the main carrier for Borrelia burgdorferi which causes Lyme disease. Not all ticks carry the bacteria but they can carry other diseases that can be passed on to humans as well as dogs. The main diseases that we are concerned about are Lyme disease and Babesiosis.

Babesia is a parasite that can be carried by ticks, it infects red blood cells and can cause anaemia, lethargy and collapse. Some forms of the disease can also affect humans. The disease is usually found in dogs that have been abroad. But there have been reports of it in the UK and it is likely that it is now established here.

The Lyme disease bacteria are usually found in rodents and deer. The bacterium is picked up by the tick when it feeds on the host, it then passes this on to the dog when it bites them. The signs of the disease include fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, lameness and swelling of the joints. Signs in humans are similar but can be more severe and often start 1-2 weeks after a tick bite. The area around an infected tick bite on a human can have a bull’s-eye looking lesion. 

Which types of treatments are available?

Treatments for animals are placed in different categories and this determines who can supply the medication. The lowest classification is AVM-GSL (Authorised Veterinary Medicine – General Sales List). This is “over-the-counter” medicine. There are no legal restrictions on who can sell them, so they don’t need to be supplied by a veterinary practice. The next category up is NFA-VPS (Non-Food Animal – Veterinarian, Pharmacist, Suitably Qualified Person); these medicines must be sold by a vet, pharmacist, or an SQP. You can often purchase them from farm merchants, pharmacies, and some larger pet stores. Other medications are POM-V (Prescription-Only Medicine – Veterinarian), and can only legally be prescribed by a vet. For these more powerful tick products, the dog must have been seen recently to ensure that the product is appropriate for the dog. They can be bought online but will need a prescription from your vet.

Tick treatments are available as spot-ons, collars and tablets and a number of different drugs are used in these. Some of the products will be able to repel ticks. Where others rely on a tick biting the animal before the product can have an effect on the tick. The products available generally last between 4 and 12 weeks. Although there is a collar on the market (Seresto) lasting up to 8 months.

When using a spot-on or topical treatment, it is important to ensure that the dog is not bathed or allowed to go swimming for 2 days after application as this may wash off some of the treatment. And if it enters a watercourse, it can be harmful to aquatic life. Usually, the products will require a period of time before they can take effect (up to a week in some cases) so it is important to still check the skin for any ticks and remove them straight away.

Which treatment is the best?

Unfortunately, there is no “best” treatment for ticks as it will depend on your dog and what you want the product to do. Some dogs are difficult to give tablets to and therefore an oral product may be avoided, whereas if your dog likes to go swimming, a tablet may be best for them. If your dog is travelling abroad a treatment that also protects against sandflies and mosquitoes will be required. If you are in an area where the risk of tick-borne diseases is high then you may prefer a product that repels ticks as this will reduce the chance of the tick biting the dog and therefore spreading disease to them.

None of the treatments available are 100% effective so it is still important to check your dog regularly and use a tick remover to detach them from the skin. Ticks can survive all year round in most of the UK, so tick treatment should be continued even in winter to prevent your pet from picking them up at any time.

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