What are tick-borne diseases?


Ticks are more than just an irritation to your dog. Ticks can transmit diseases which, at worst, can be fatal to dogs and - although very rarely - humans.

Traditionally more common in spring and autumn, ticks are becoming active at other times of year due to changeable weather conditions in the UK. And with an exotic tick species previously only seen in Continental Europe now residing in Britain, it's important for owners to be clued up on ticks.

What are ticks?

Ticks are blood-sucking parasites which are normally picked up by dogs in long grass or in woodland areas. The tick eggs are laid in grassland, hatch into small ticks, and then moult twice before becoming adults. At each stage of the life cycle a blood meal is taken to allow development to continue. In order to do this, ticks crawl up grass stems and attach to the next passing mammal.

The main tick species in the UK most commonly affecting domestic pets are ixodes ricinus (sheep tick), ixodes hexagonus (hedgehog tick), and ixodes canisuga.

"Sheep ticks are the most common in the UK and are evenly distributed around the country - they prefer moorland and woodland," explained Amy Jennett, from Bristol Veterinary School. "Hedgehog ticks tend to be in parks and urban environments and seem to be restricted to small southern and central regions. Canisuga tend to be kennel ticks. Ticks are predominantly seen in spring and autumn. However, if it's been a particularly mild winter or wet summer they might be around earlier in the year and active for longer."

When an infected tick hooks on to your pet it can pass on any disease it might be carrying. Ticks don't usually transmit disease for 24 – 48 hours after attachment, so early removal can prevent this happening. Ticks can't jump or fly, but they are opportunistic.

There are many tick species native to the UK, but fortunately the list of diseases they transmit is small. Taking your dog abroad opens him up to the risk of foreign ticks and the diseases they might carry. With climate change and the relaxed pet travel legislation, which says it is no longer compulsory for dogs to be treated for ticks before entering the UK, it is also possible foreign ticks could reach our shores.

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How to spot a tick

"Ticks at the larvae stage are harder to spot, but adult ticks are quite obvious - they resemble small, pale grey lumps," said Amy. "People often mistake them for growths. Run your hands through your dog's fur and check it - doing this regularly is key. If you do find a tick remove it as quickly as possible. Ticks are harder to spot in longer-haired dogs than short-haired breeds. Check the armpits, head, ears, around the bottom, and undercarriage."

Some dogs may scratch a lot if they have fleas and some may not, so here’s a list of other signs to look out for...

  • Red bites on your dog’s skin.
  • Itching and scratching.
  • Hair loss or thinning of the coat.
  • Patches of skin irritation or skin infections.
  • Flea bites on you or your family’s skin (commonly around the ankles).
  • Flea poo in your dog’s coat (look out for black-red specks).

It’s important to check your dog regularly for fleas. These parasites love to hide behind your dog’s ears, around the head, and at the base of the tail. Use a comb to part the fur and check the area at the root of the hair, as this is where you may find fleas and any flea poo.

Even if you don’t spot any evidence of fleas on your dog, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is flea-free. If in doubt, take your dog to your vet for a check-up, as he or she will also be able to rule out any other causes of scratching, such as allergies and mites. Prevention is easier than cure, so keeping these creepy critters out of your and your pet’s life in the first place is key. However, it’s not uncommon to have a flea infestation on your pet or in your home at some point. Sadly, there is no quick fix, and getting an infestation resolved can take three months or more.

Here are some top tips for tackling a flea infestation:

  • Treat all cats and dogs in the household with a flea product that kills both fleas and their eggs.
  • Wash pet bedding at 60°C.
  • Vacuum the whole house regularly and dispose of the bag frequently.
  • Treat your home at the same time as you treat your pets with a suitable household flea spray

How to find fleas on dogs

Take a small sheet of white paper (kitchen towel works best), and moisten it, hold it near the base of the dog's back, and brush or scratch him vigorously in the same area holding the paper close by. Black specs of dirt/dust will fly on to the paper. Any that dissolve in the water on the paper to leave a reddish smudge are flea faeces containing blood.

Tick-borne diseases

Ticks can cause skin irritation or other skin reactions such as localised swelling. Some ticks also carry diseases in their saliva. The main disease that can be transmitted by ticks in the UK is Lyme disease - a debilitating chronic infection caused by the bacteria borrelia burgdorferi.

Cases of tick-borne diseases have reportedly been on the rise, and a study by Bristol University estimated there are 481 infected ticks per 100,000 dogs. Professor Michael Day, president of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, encourages dog owners to protect their pets against the parasites. "Because ticks feed on a number of different animals, they can transmit diseases between wild animals and domestic dogs," he said.

"While the majority of ticks are found in pasture and woodland, some species can be found in domestic environments such as homes and kennels. If you find a tick on your dog, it should be removed. The most important thing is to get the entire tick out of your pet - if you're not confident or have any concerns, consult your vet immediately."

Symptoms of tick-borne diseases include:

  • Lethargy.
  • Fever.
  • Repeated episodes of arthritis in several joints.
  • Lack of appetite.

Anaplasmosis - a disease affecting the red blood cells which can cause anaemia in dogs - is also transmitted by ticks but is not very common in the UK.

What diseases can ticks transmit?

There are lots of tick-borne diseases worldwide but UK dog owners need to be most aware of:

  • Lyme disease (borreliosis): The only disease carried by UK ticks. An infected dog might be lethargic, have a fever, lose his appetite, or begin to struggle with arthritis. In chronic cases Lyme disease can cause kidney, heart, or nerve problems, which can be fatal. Symptoms can occur a long time after the infective bite. Ticks are commonly found in woodland.
  • Babesiosis: This disease is rare in Britain but can be a risk if you take your dog abroad. Symptoms include lethargy, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, anaemia, and a yellowing of the skin between eight and 21 days after infection. The disease can strike suddenly and be fatal. Dogs who recover from babesiosis remain carriers of the disease and need to be monitored in case of a relapse.
  • Anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis: Although this disease doesn't occur naturally in Britain, there have been reported cases of infected dogs in the UK. An infected dog might display signs of fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, depression, and, in severe cases, meningitis or seizures.

What do ticks do?

A tick will attach itself to a dog by burrowing its mouth into the skin; it will remain attached until it has sucked enough blood and then drop off to digest the meal. A tick's body will swell during feeding as it fills with blood.

What to do if you find a tick

Resist the temptation to pluck them from your dog as the mouth parts can remain in the skin and produce festering sores.

Never try to burn ticks out or squeeze them - these methods are more likely to injure your dog, and squeezing ticks can release toxins into your dog's body.

A tick removal tool is the safest implement to use to get rid of ticks (see below).

Use preventative measures to prevent your dog from getting ticks in the first instance. Several flea treatments are effective against ticks.

Facts about ticks

  • Ticks vary in size from a millimetre or so up to about half a centimetre in diameter.
  • Fifteen species of tick exist in the UK, but only three affect domestic animals such as dogs.
  • Ticks are arthropods and related to spiders, mites, and scorpions.

Prevent your dog from getting ticks

When it comes to tick-borne diseases, prevention is better than cure. Regularly check your dog for ticks. Ticks that are not engorged can be tiny, as small as 1mm. When stroking or grooming your dog look out for ticks, and remember to check those harder-to-reach areas such as between the pads and toes. If you find a tick on your pet it is important to remove it safely, as incorrect removal can result in the transmission of infected fluids.

There are some tick prevention products on the market. Very few repel ticks, while several only kill ticks, and can take up to 48 hours to do so. It is important to understand what the product you choose does, and always check if it needs more frequent application for tick control.

If you live in an area where ticks are prevalent you can vaccinate your dog against Lyme disease. If your dog has been bitten by a tick and is showing symptoms of a tick-borne disease, seek veterinary help as soon as possible. The quicker a tick-borne disease can be diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of recovery.

How to remove a tick safely

When removing one of these parasites from your dog, you need to detach the whole of the tick. Injuring it can cause infected fluids to pass from the tick into your dog's bloodstream.

The best way to remove a tick is to use a tick-removal tool. There are different products available but the O'Tom Tick Twister is highly recommended by professionals (www.otom.com).

Never try to burn or freeze a tick off your dog. This can be painful and is likely to cause the tick to regurgitate infected fluids.

Once the tick is removed, disinfect the bite and wash your hands thoroughly.

To dispose of a tick, place it in some tissue and flush it away.

  • Go through your dog's coat carefully and thoroughly after each walk.
  • Remover any ticks straight away.
  • In terms of prevention, the most effective preventative treatments for ticks are fipronil (such as FRONTLINE® Spot On), although there are others too.
  • A spot-on is undoubtedly the most effective formulation for flea and tick products, though Frontline also comes in a spray formulation which kills ticks. Insecticidal shampoos tend to be ineffective so if you wish to use an alternative to a spot-on discuss it with your vet.
  • Remember to treat for ticks all year round too, as with changes to our climate, ticks are now a year round problem.