Ticks are a common parasite that can cause problems in cats and dogs. There are species of tick in the UK which affect all dogs, these include those that are carried by dogs, deer, sheep, and hedgehogs. The most common ticks are Ixodes ricinus, Dermacentor reticulatus (marsh tick) and Rhipicephalus sanguineus (brown dog tick, kennel tick). But why are they a problem, and in this tick awareness week, how do we deal with them?

What are ticks?

Ticks are spider-like small parasites that suck blood from other animals. They have eight legs with an egg-shaped body, which will become larger and darker when filled with blood. Ticks do not jump like fleas but are cleverly designed to crawl up vegetation to dog-level where they detect movement and changes in carbon dioxide levels, indicative of a potential host being nearby. As the host brushes through the vegetation, the larvae, nymphs, or adults then attach to the animal and start to search for the best place to feed.

Ticks are common in woodland and grassland and, although they are active throughout the year, you are most likely to see them between spring and autumn. Cats are less likely to get ticks than dogs, but it can still happen. 

What is the tick’s lifecycle?

Ticks have four stages in their life cycle – egg, larvae, nymph, and adult, feeding on blood at each stage. 

Adult females bite the host and bury their heads under the skin to feed. There they can swell from being barely visible, to the size of a large pea when gorged with blood. This can take 5-7 days, before dropping off to lay eggs on the ground. 

After 9-60 days depending upon weather, eggs hatch into tiny larvae which then look for a host animal on which to feed. 

Having fed, the cycle continues where they once again drop off and moult into nymphs, before looking for a host animal on which to feed. 

Can ticks spread diseases?

There are hosts involved in the tick’s lifecycle, meaning that ticks can spread disease from animal to animal, if the tick itself is infected with another organism.

It is essential that you are aware that ticks can transmit a dangerous disease in the UK, known as Lyme disease – which has profound consequences for dogs and humans, making tick control especially relevant.

Dogs, cats, and humans can all get Lyme disease, although it is uncommon in cats.

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Symptoms in cats and dogs include:

  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Lameness
  • Swollen and painful joints
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Lethargic

The treatment for Lyme disease, if caught early can be treated with antibiotics from a veterinary surgeon. If you are at all worried, then you should contact your veterinary surgeon who will run tests and start treatment. 

Another disease that ticks can be the culprit to spread is Babesiosis. Babesia canis is a type of parasite that causes an infection of the red blood cells – known as Babesiosis.

Babesia comes in many forms, some affect dogs. The seriousness of the infection varies depending on the form of Babesia, but in extreme cases, Babesiosis can be fatal.

Affected dogs can (rarely) pass on the infection to other dogs. Pregnant bitches may pass it on to their pups before birth, or the parasite may pass from dog to dog if one bites another. As with most conditions, younger puppies and elderly dogs are at a greater risk.

Symptoms of Babesiosis may include:

  • A high fever
  • Lethargy or general weakness
  • Enlarged lumps on the skin
  • Red or orange urine
  • A yellow tinge to your dog’s skin, gums, or the whites of their eyes (Jaundice)
  • Pale gums/tongue

Once a dog is infected, it is difficult for the Babesia parasite to be removed from the dog’s system completely. However, medication can be successful in keeping symptoms at bay, with further tests and treatment from your veterinary surgeon.

How can you prevent ticks on their dogs?

Ticks can be surprisingly hard to spot on your pet until they get quite big, which is why regular checks are essential. It is best to remove ticks as soon as possible after they latch on, to reduce the risk they will pass on a disease.

When they first attach, a tick may be the size of a small pinhead but, as they suck blood, they can grow to the size of a match head and may look like a bluish-grey, pink, or purple lump.

They look like little skin lumps but if you look closer, you should be able to see their legs. After they have been feeding, they can grow to around 1cm.

Tick bites can carry diseases, so it is important to remove them straight away. We advise you not to squeeze the tick’s body or leave the head in. Failure to do this can push blood back into the pet, which will increase the chance of them getting a disease. The same goes for leaving the tick’s head in.

There is a tick removal tool that can be used to remove the tick

Simply follow these instructions:

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  1. In the pack there are two sizes of tick tools. Choose the most suitable hook according to the size of the tick.
  2. Engage the hook by approaching the tick from the side until the tick is in the hook
  3. Lift the hook very lightly and turn it very slowly (clockwise). The tick detaches by itself after two or three rotations

As SQPs, we encourage you to use tick treatments that either kill or repel ticks if they attach. There are distinct types of treatments, such as:

  • Spot on treatments
  • Tablets.

It is essential to warn owners to be careful: NEVER use dog tick medicine on cats or visa versa. Some dog tick treatments contain chemicals that are toxic to cats and can even be fatal to them.

Can humans get ticks?

Yes, humans can get ticks too. SQPs can advise you on tick prevention, such as precautions when walking their dog, such as wearing long sleeved clothing and trousers to cover the skin. There are insect repellents they can use to stop ticks. 

If you have been bitten by a tick, then a tick removal tool can be used but we strongly advise you to seek (human!) medical advice. MSD Animal Health do an excellent map of UK tick risk. This is an interactive map which was created by MSD due to the results of the Big Tick Survey, so do take a look!

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