This article has been written to provide dog owners with information relating to ticks, tick prevention and tick removal. It applies to you and your dog and could help to prevent both/either of you contracting a rather unpleasant disease.

I was going to hold back on writing and releasing this post until April or May, the start of tick season here in the UK; but as the Easter Holidays are early this year I thought it sensible to write it early. Part of the article covers prevention, so I also thought releasing it earlier than planned would give you time to prepare.

What are ticks?

Ticks are small, blood-sucking arthropods related to spiders. There are many different species of tick living in Britain, each preferring to feed on the blood of different animal hosts.

Ticks normally choose wildlife and farm livestock to be their hosts. However, people and pets send out the same signals (body heat and chemicals) as the tick’s usual hosts. The tick recognises these signals as being from a potential host and they will readily attach. Because we are not generally the intended host, we become ‘incidental hosts’, meaning that we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Three particular species of tick are most likely to attach to people and their pets in the UK. One is Ixodes ricinus (also known as the sheep tick, wood tick, deer tick and castor bean tick). The second is Ixodes hexagonus (also known as the hedgehog tick). The third is Dermacentor reticulatus (also known as the ornate cow tick or the marsh tick). However, there are over 20 species of ticks in Britain, and a number of them have been known to attach to people or pets. It can depend on the area, habitat and surrounding wildlife, as to which species are most abundant.

What does a tick look like?

Ticks vary in colour (ranging from reddish to dark brown or black), and differ in size, depending on the species, age and sex of the tick, and whether it has fed.

Sheep / Deer Ticks - ©BADA-UK

The image above, courtesy of BADA-UK, show a female and male sheep tick. Note their size compared to the leaf and blade of grass. To the naked eye the larvae (with 6 legs) look like specks of soot, while nymphs are slightly larger, pinhead or poppy seed size. With their eight legs, nymphs and adult ticks resemble small spiders.

Sheep/deer tick feeding - ©BADA-UK

In this picture, you can see how a tick changes in appearance as it feeds and fills with the hosts blood.

Tick sizes ©BADA-UK

Here you can see just how small an unfed tick is. An unfed female is approximately 3mm (sesame-seed-size). Unfed males are smaller, at approximately 2.5mm. Unfed nymphs (which are semi grown) are smaller still, at around 1.5mm, and the larvae are a tiny 0.5mm (the size of a poppy seed). Even at such a tiny size, larvae can still transmit certain infections. Once fed, a tick can become considerably bigger.

Where can ticks be found?

The National Parks and forests are often publicised as the holding the greatest risk of tick bite to humans and pets. Tick bites are on the increase in these areas, but this can mainly be attributed to an increase in the population spending their leisure time in these areas and greater awareness, not necessarily an increase in numbers of ticks.

The truth is that ticks can be found across the whole of the UK. Ticks can be found anywhere that wildlife goes (e.g. pheasants, blackbirds, hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, squirrels and deer), where livestock grazes (e.g. cows, and sheep), and where the vegetation (e.g. grasses, heather, bracken, trees or garden shrubs) is sufficiently dense enough to provide a higher level of humidity that ticks need to survive. This can include town parks and gardens.

Dogs and ticks

Ticks cannot jump or fly, but when ready for a meal will climb a nearby piece of vegetation and wait for a passing animal or human to catch their hooked front legs. The tick will not necessarily bite immediately, but will often spend some time finding a suitable site on the skin.

What are the risks associated with a tick bite?

A bite from a tick is usually painless and you may only know if you or your dog have been bitten if you happen to see a feeding tick. A tick bite may cause irritation, an abscess or may blister.

A point to consider for smaller dogs is their small blood reserve, a small number of feeding ticks could lead to ‘significant’ blood loss and anaemia, but the main risk from a tick bite relates to the risk of infection passed on by the tick. Ticks feed on the blood of other animals. If a larval tick picks up an infection from an animal such as a vole or rat, when it next feeds as a nymph it can pass the infection to the next animal or human it bites. Ticks in Britain can carry a number of unpleasant diseases, including:

  • Lyme borreliosis (Lyme Disease)
  • Babesiosis
  • Ehrlichiosis
  • TBE and Louping ill
  • Bartonella

Tick Bite Bulls Eye Rash

The most common of these diseases is Lyme Disease. The earliest and most common symptom of Lyme disease is a pink or red circular rash that develops around the area of the bite, three to 30 days after someone is bitten. The rash is often described as looking like a bull’s-eye on a dart board.
You may also experience flu-like symptoms, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Sore neck
  • Fever and/or chills

If Lyme disease is left untreated, further symptoms may develop months or even years later and can include:

  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain and swelling of the joints
  • Neurological symptoms, such as temporary paralysis of the facial muscles
  • Inflammation of the heart muscles
  • Bacterial meningitis

Lyme disease in its late stages can trigger symptoms similar to those of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.

How to reduce the possibility of a tick bite

Due to the physical differences between you and your dog, the way to reduce the risk of (and hopefully prevent) a tick bite changes. Also, the products licensed for use on humans differs from those licensed for animals, these differences should be observed at all times.

Deer tick feeding

Prevention for people

The simplest barrier to preventing ticks reaching your skin is to cover up exposed skin with trousers and long sleeved tops. Light coloured clothing will enable you to see and brush off any ticks that attach to you.

Clothing can be treated with the insecticide Permethrin which is safe for humans in normal doses, but is dangerous to some animals, so should be used with care.

Insect repellents containing the active ingredients DEET and Picaridine are also effective against ticks. DEET is widely available and is safe for most people, but has been associated with adverse reactions in others. It can also damage synthetic clothing (waterproof coats, active wear) if applied to the fabric. DEET is toxic so should not be used on your pets. Picaridine has a slightly lower toxicity and does not damage synthetic fabrics but some studies have shown it to be less effective against ticks.

On returning home you should check your person and clothing for ticks.

Prevention for dogs

Tick treatments for dogs come in various forms (e.g. spot-on, spray-on or chemically-treated collars).

These may be unsuitable for pregnant or nursing animals and should only be used on healthy animals and under the guidance of your vet. Not all pet products are safe for every type of animal and some may have side-effects. You should also be aware of their interaction with other treatments you use on your pet.

Tick-control products can work in either one or a combination of these ways:

  • Prevents ticks from being attracted to your pet – a repellent.
  • Kills the tick once it has made contact with your pet’s skin – an acaricide.
  • Reduces the risk of the tick attaching and taking a blood feed.

As some products can take a while to work after application and may kill ticks during the feeding process, it is still advisable to check your pet for ticks and to remove them.

There are a number of products licensed in the UK for tick control on companion animals:
ADVANTIX SPOT ON, CERTIFECT SPOT ON, FRONTLINE SPRAY & SPOT ON, PRAC-TIC SPOT ON, PROMERIS SPOT ON, SCALIBOR COLLARS and SERESTO COLLARS.
Please speak to you vet about which is the most appropriate method of prevention for your dog.

There are also a variety of homeopathic prevention recipes available to be found online, their suitability and effectiveness is untested.

How to check for ticks

Even the most effective preventative measures cannot guarantee that you or your dog will not become host to ticks. It is therefore important that you check both yourself and your dog thoroughly.

Tick on dog fur

Tick checking for people

Brush over clothing to remove loose ticks before going inside.

Check skin carefully all over for ticks. Pay attention to folds in the skin and other areas where a tick could hide, especially behind the knees, armpits, in the groin area and between the buttocks (a small mirror is a useful tool here). You should also inspect the hairline, neck and ears.

If a non-feeding tick is found, the best way to dispose of a tick is to place it in a tissue and squash it. Then flush the tissue away or dispose of it in the dustbin. Do not handle a tick with bare hands as certain organisms in the tick’s saliva or gut contents may enter through breaks in the skin, or the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose, or mouth if you touch them. Do not release a tick once it has been removed as it may survive to lay lots of eggs or bite another person or animal.

Tick checking for dogs

Ideally, tick checks should be performed whenever your dog has been exposed to an environment conducive to tick habitat. Stroking your pet is a good time to do a finger-tip search for smaller ticks and this can be a relaxing, bonding time between you and your pet.

When grooming, brush against, as well as with, the hair-growth to see any ticks that are close to the skin. Check all over the dogs body but pay particular attention to around and inside the ears, around the eyes, on the chin, around the muzzle, chest and between pads and toes.

If a non-feeding tick is found, the best way to dispose of a tick is to place it in a tissue and squash it. Then flush the tissue away or dispose of it in the dustbin. Do not handle a tick with bare hands as certain organisms in the tick’s saliva or gut contents may enter through breaks in the skin, or the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose, or mouth if you touch them. Do not release a tick once it has been removed as it may survive to lay lots of eggs or bite another person or animal.

How to remove feeding ticks

If you find a feeding tick on you or your dog it must be removed with care and attention. Incorrect removal may result in:

  • The mouthpart being left in the skin leading to localised infection.
  • Squeezing the tick and forcing the contents of its stomach into the hosts bloodstream, thus passing on disease causing organisms and bacteria.
  • Puncturing the tick leading to the spillage of disease causing organisms and bacteria.
  • Distressing the tick, causing it to vomit the contents of its stomach back into the hosts bloodstream.

There are many myths surrounding the removal of ticks, yet according to Borreliosis and Associated Diseases Awareness UK only 2 can prevent the risk of incorrect removal (using fine tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool). I however believe that the tweezer technique still presents risks. Whilst most households have a set of blunt or surgical tweezers, few will have fine tipped tweezers. My worry is that on finding a feeding tick, many people would be tempted to use the blunt tweezers they have available. Also, using fine tipped tweezers is a delicate and precise operation, if you grip the wrong part of the tick or grip too tightly there is a risk of incorrect removal. I therefore do not recommend this method of removal.

The only method that I would recommend is removal using a tick removal tool. The tool that I can thoroughly recommend in the O’ Tom Tick Twister, it is simple to use and safely removes the whole tick without compression. In a comparison study of four different tick-removal devices, published in the Veterinary Record (2006, 159, 526-529), the O’Tom Tick Twister ® was compared with surgical forceps, a pen-tweezer device, and a tempered steel tool (slit and traction action). The O’Tom Tick Twister ® proved to be significantly better than the other devices for the time required to remove the tick, the ease with which the tick was grabbed, the force needed to extract the tick, the reaction of the animal, and the condition of the tick’s mouth parts.

O’ Tom Tick Twisters are available from most vets for around £5; The Way of the Dog recommend that you pay your vet a quick visit to purchase a set to keep in your 1st aid kit. I also keep a set in my car for times when we are away from home. On this visit you should also take the opportunity to enquire about suitable tick treatments and repellents for your dog.

After removal, disinfect the bite site and wash your hands and tools thoroughly.

When to seek veterinary / medical attention

If you find a feeding tick on yourself or your dog, remove it safely and do not see a rash there is no need to seek medical attention. If however you see or do any of the following you should seek the advice of your doctor/vet.

  • You do not see a feeding tick, but develop the bulls eye rash shown above.
  • You remove a tick and develop a bulls eye rash at a later date.
  • You attempt to remove a feeding tick but break it, leaving any part in your skin.
  • You attempt to remove a tick and squeeze the body.
  • You attempt to remove a tick and puncture it.
  • You attempt to remove a tick using any method other than using a tick removal tool.
  • You or your dog exhibit any of the symptoms mentioned above, under What are the risks associated with a tick bite?
  • If you are not confident to safely remove the tick yourself.

Conclusion

Ticks pose a very real risk to the health of you and your dog. With awareness, preventative actions, thorough checking and correct removal these risks can be minimised.

Please go and chat to your vet about the risks your dog is exposed to and the preventative treatments they can offer. Also pick up a set of O’ Tom Tick Twisters whilst you are there. They are the best tool for the job.

Enjoy the summer, enjoy your walks, enjoy your dog.

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