You probably all know about ticks – nasty blood sucking little creatures – but there are good reasons this spring to refresh your memory about the harm these beasties can do. So, in this blog we’re going to look at different ticks, how they live, the diseases they carry – and, of course, how to kill them and keep your pets safe.
What are ticks?
Ticks are actually member of the spider family (“arachnids”) but instead of killing and eating their prey (like spiders or scorpions), they just suck its blood. There are a number of different species of tick in the UK, however, their life cycle is very similar. The three most important are:
- Dermacentor reticulatus (also known as the Ornate Dog Tick or the Meadow Tick). This tick is found mainly in wooded and coastal regions in the UK. This tick transmits the dangerous (and fairly new) disease Babesiosis. Click for more information from Bristol University.
- Rhipicephalus sanguineus (AKA the Brown Dog Tick or the Kennel Tick). Fortunately, this is rare in the UK, although it may be getting a foothold in some areas. It also transmits Babesiosis – learn more about this tick.
- Ixodes ricinus (the Sheep Tick or Castor Bean Tick) is the most common tick in the UK, and is found across the country. It doesn’t carry Canine Babesiosis, but can spread several other nasty diseases. See more about it.
How do ticks live?
Most ticks have a fairly straightforward life cycle – they hatch from their eggs as larvae and then go looking for a warm blooded mammal to drink blood from. Having had a nice big meal, they then make a sort of cocoon, in which they transform into nymphs. The nymphs have a meal, then cocoon themselves and turn into adults. The adults emerge and have another meal, then mate, lay their eggs, and die. The exact number of stages depends on the species, but the basic principle is the same for all of them.
The common Sheep Tick usually takes about a year for each stage to complete, so they live for 3-4 years. However, in the UK, ticks are not active over winter (it’s too cold for them!) so usually emerge in the spring. There is often an autumn emergence as well, as those ticks that weren’t quite ready to hatch in the spring emerge before the frosts of winter drive them back into hiding.
To hunt their prey, ticks climb onto vegetation and wave their front legs in the air. Their noses are on these limbs, and they are smelling for a possible meal walking their way – when one arrives, they jump on board and start to feed. This behaviour is called “Questing”.
What diseases do they carry?
Unpleasant though it is, a tick bite itself isn’t usually particularly harmful – although if there are too many of them, they may suck enough blood to make a puppy, kitten, or even a small adult dog or cat, seriously anaemic.
The problem is that ticks are really messy eaters – when drinking, they dribble and are prone to “backwash” into the veins of their host. This means that if they are carrying any nasty bacteria or protozoa (like amoebas), these organisms get washed into the animal’s (or human’s!) bloodstream. However, it takes them about 24-48 hours to get firmly attached to their victim – if you can kill or remove them inside this time, the risk of infection is very low.
The most important nasties are:
- Lyme Disease. This is caused by a bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) and is sometimes called Tick Borreliosis. It can infect people as well as dogs, and often leads to arthritis, a fever, muscle weakness, and sometimes brain damage or heart problems. Although in humans there is usually a rash on the skin near the bite, this doesn’t always happen in dogs. It’s a hard disease to diagnose too, and the symptoms often start mild and subtle, making it difficult to start treatment. The only good news is that we cannot catch it from our dogs – only via a tick bite.
- Babesia canis. This is new to the UK, only being recognised as a permanent resident of these parts last year (2016). It’s an organism that parasitises the dog’s red blood cells, leading to a disease called Babesiosis. This condition is characterised by anaemia, weakness, difficulty breathing, collapse, and sometimes death. Learn more here.
Other possible infections include Anaplasma and Ehrlichia, which may cause similar symptoms to Babesia, but are usually less severe.
How common are tick bites?
Very! In one study last year, 31% of dogs during tick season are carrying at least one tick! In addition, 3% of ticks carry Lyme Disease (although fortunately, Babesia is still much rarer). Unfortunately, living in the city is no defence – the same study found that the risk of tick infestation is almost identical between urban and rural or isolated areas.
So what should I do about it?
Trying just to avoid ticks is basically impossible. Instead, you need to be more aggressive in your approach to these nasty creatures!
- Repel them – If possible, us a medication to make your pet less attractive. The only one that is proven to work is permethrin, a drug that is toxic to ticks and drives them away, Remember, though, it’s also lethally toxic to cats, so this is a dog-only point!
- Kill them – use a medication that will kill ticks. There are a wide range of medicines as tablets, collars and spot-ons that kill ticks – ideally, you want something that kills them within the critical 24-48 hour window.
- Remove them – If you find a tick on your pet, remove it with a proper tick hook. Don’t just pull it out, as you’ll leave the mouthparts in the skin, where they can set up an infection. Instead, twist it out carefully! Also, don’t try to poison them in situ by dropping spirit or anything else on them – as they die they tend to vomit into your pet’s bloodstream!