15% of UK dogs are infested with ticks at any one time, according to a recent study. Ticks are most prevalent in rural areas, favouring moist undergrowth and long grasses. They lie in vegetation and attach to your dog or cat as they brush past. The most common species of tick found in the UK is Ixodes ricinus. Ixodes ricinus has 4 life stages, and requires a blood meal before moulting to the next lifestage (egg, larvae, nymph and adult). It has a 3 host lifecycle as shown in the diagram. Your pet can be unlucky enough to be a generous host, providing a blood meal, for any three of these stages!
Ticks have highly developed mouthparts, which allow them to pierce through your pet’s skin and feed on their blood. They often cause local, irritating inflammatory reactions at the site of attachment. High tick burdens in young animals can actually lead to anaemia due to the sheer volume of blood consumed. Ticks are of most importance to us due to the diseases they carry and can transmit to your pets. In the UK, the most significant tick-borne illness is Lyme Disease. Lyme disease is not a new disease and was documented in Europe, known by various different names, in the early 20th century. It is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. Lyme disease can be very difficult to diagnose as it affects so many organs. Diagnosis is usually based upon a history of a tick bite along with typical symptoms including polyarthritis (or “shifting lameness”), fever and anorexia. More serious symptoms can also occur when the kidneys, heart or nervous system are involved. A specific blood test looking at antibodies to this bacterium may be checked to help confirm the diagnosis. Lyme Disease is treated using a specific antibiotic (Doxycycline) which has to be given for at least 4 weeks. Sicker animals will often need to be hospitalised during some of this time for supportive care. It is very important to be aware that ticks are not species specific and will happily feast on our blood too. Lyme disease does affect people – a good reason for keeping those peelywally legs covered in the summer when out walking!
In mainland Europe, ticks carry and transmit other diseases which can make our pets very ill. This is why tick control is so important when travelling abroad. The main tick-borne diseases we worry about when visiting countries like Spain and France are Babesiosis and Erlichiosis. Babesiosis is caused by a rickettsial parasite (somewhere between bacteria and viruses on an evolutionary scale), and Erlichiosis is due to a protozoal parasite (single-celled organism). Like Lyme disease, these conditions can be very difficult to diagnose as symptoms are often vague as so many organs can be affected.
The key to avoiding tick borne disease is to avoid the ticks! This may mean avoiding areas of dense undergrowth during times of tick activity (pretty much all year – except deepest, darkest winter!).
You can also protect your pet from ticks using spot-on preparations or a special collar. Here at Westport we tend to recommend Advantix spot-on treatment (dogs) or a Seresto collar (dogs and cats) for tick prevention. These products are particularly effective as they actually repel the ticks before they even attach to your pet, as well as killing them if they do attach and bite. We recommend you check your pet often for ticks and that they are promptly removed if discovered.
Tick removal is a science in itself! Please give us a call if you are unsure how to do this correctly as improperly removed ticks can cause a whole “host” of problems.