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What are ticks?

dog with hedgehog

Ticks are extremely unpleasant parasites and can transmit a range of diseases. Traditionally more common in spring and autumn, they 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 they?

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.”

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.”

"Regular grooming after walks reduces the chance of ticks attaching to dogs; learn to rapidly identify ticks when grooming your dog so you can remove them from the coat before they attach to the skin. It’s worth regularly checking your dog’s coat carefully even if you use a preventative treatment, as the occasional tick may still manage to attach itself to the skin. “Ticks are highly opportunistic,” added Amy.

Tick 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.

Symptoms 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 do they 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.

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.

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

Ticks on the march

In 2009, academics at the University of Bristol carried out a study which revealed that the number of dogs infested with ticks was much higher than expected.

The prevalence of ticks attaching to dogs in Britain was mapped as part of a national tick survey. The research found that at any one time, 14.9 per cent of dogs were infested with the blood-sucking parasites. More than 3,500 dogs were examined for ticks at 173 veterinary centres across the UK between March and October 2009. The study confirmed that a tick species only found previously in Continental Europe now existed in locations in west Wales and southeast England. This added to growing evidence that this exotic tick was now a permanent resident in the UK.

Did you know?

  • 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.

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