Why Worry About Ticks?

Ticks are in the news, spreading disease to us and to our pets. In a recent survey nearly a third of dogs brought to vets for other reasons were found to have ticks feeding on them.

What is a tick? Ticks are spider-like parasites which spend most of their time away from animals, in grass and undergrowth. They may live for several years. When they are ready to feed, they climb up blades of grass and stand at the tip, waving their mouthparts in the air, waiting for an animal to attach to. This stage of a tick’s life is called “questing.”

Whilst they are usually found in rough grass, they are able to colonise lawns and even buildings and cars. I have found one on my own cat in the suburbs of Cardiff, so don’t think they are only a problem if you go hillwalking.

Ticks normally feed from livestock; commonly sheep, cattle, and deer, but even hedgehogs and small mammals such as mice and voles can have them. Ticks are not that fussy about who they feed off, so they can also attach to dogs, cats, rabbits, and even people.

Ticks range in size from 1mm to 1cm in size, depending on their life stage and whether they have fed. They may be pink, grey-fawn, or black in colour. On animals, they are commonly found around the head, feet, and groin, but they can attach anywhere on the body. Ticks cause discomfort when attached as they have sharp mouthparts which pierce the skin. Eventually they will fall off, but they may stay attached for several days.

Ticks can be safely removed, but it is very important not to just pull them off. Pulling can leave the mouthparts behind in the skin, causing reaction and infection. The easiest way to remove them is to use a tick hook. This slides under the mouthparts of the tick and is then twisted to weaken their grip and remove them. Once the tick is removed, check both mouthparts are present — see the picture — and then dispose of the tick. This is important or they may reattach to you or your pet. If your pet is off-colour, or the area reddens, swells, or becomes infected, take them to a vet.

Whilst ticks can be removed, it is better to stop them attaching in the first place. Spot-on treatments such as Advantix for dogs and Broadline for cats will repel and kill them; tablets such as Nexgard Spectra and Bravecto for dogs will also kill them. Anti-tick collars are also available.

So why should we worry about ticks? What are the diseases that they cause? There are four main diseases found in the UK.

Babesiosis attacks the red blood cells of dogs, causing fever, weakness, lethargy, pale or yellow gums and red/brown urine (due to destruction of red blood cells). The UK used to be free of the disease, but recently several dogs who had never left the UK contracted the disease and most of them died. Treatment often requires blood transfusions and special drugs imported from the USA.

Ehrlichiosis is caused by a small tick which can live in kennels, houses, and cars. Affected dogs can develop fever, bleeding (including bleeding inside the eye, bladder etc), weight loss, severe eye disease, and suppression of bone marrow. Blood can fail to clot, or become thickened, meaning it is difficult for it to travel round the body. This disease can be treated with antibiotics.

Bartonellosis is largely a disease of cats which can cause a variety of problems. It appears that many animals carry the disease but remain symptomless. When stressed or run down, cats may develop fever, anaemia, heart and liver problems, and nervous system problems.

Borrelia burgdoferi (Lyme disease) can affect both people and dogs. The disease may take several months to develop and causes lethargy, fever, painfully inflamed joints, and enlargement of lymph nodes (glands). It can cause nervous signs, heart disease, and kidney disease as well. Treatment is with antibiotics.

These tick-borne diseases can be very serious, so the best thing for your pet is to prevent ticks attaching in the first place. Use a preventative anti-parasitic treatment regularly and equip yourself with a tick hook to remove them if you find them. If you think your pet may have picked up a disease from a tick, consult your vet immediately.

There are good photographs of how to remove a tick here. A video showing the use of the tick hook can be found here.

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