Dogs & Ticks

It has been widely reported that tick numbers are on the increase here in the UK. They are benefiting from climate change, which posses a real threat to both human and animal health.
The apparent changes in seasons are also favouring the spread of ticks that were previously only found in warmer climates. As well as being unpleasant for you and your dog, they can also transmit diseases.

What are ticks?

Ticks are blood sucking parasites which are capable of attaching themselves to the skin of most animals and birds. They are generally found in damp areas of dense vegetation and attach themselves to the animal to feed, then when full, just simply drop off. The main areas that a tick will attach themselves to dogs are the head, ears, legs and undercarriage.

When a tick attaches itself to a host it uses its mouthparts to cut into the top layer of skin. It then inserts a tube with backwards facing teeth through the skin and towards the vessels below. A cement-like substance passes down the tube and helps to anchor everything firmly into place before enzymes and anti-clotting agents are released to allow the tick to start feeding.

When they first attach themselves to the host they are the size of a small pinhead, but some may grow to the size of a large pea and may be mistaken for a bluish-grey lump or wart. Some dogs never experience a problem when ticks attach themselves, while others will experience a reaction varying from the development of a small scab, to a huge swelling the size of a walnut or even larger.

If the body of the tick is removed but the mouthparts remain, a lump will quite often develop. Dogs will find this irritating. If they scratch this area, the result is quite often an infection of some kind. Fortunately nearly all of these cases will get better without treatment, if needed however, respond with a short course of antibiotics.

Disease transmission

Several types of tick are present here in the UK, but not all of them are associated with disease transmission. One that is however is Ixodes ricinus, the sheep or deer tick. This tick has been identified in the spread of Borrelia burgdorferi the agent that causes Lyme disease. These ticks are most frequently found on moorlands, in areas of rough grazing, woods and copses.
Small rodents are the source of Borrelia and when tick larvae hatch they will feed on mice and rats, picking up the organism along the way. As the larvae mature they will remain infected and spread quantities of the organism to anything they feed on, including dogs and man. An adult tick can lay several thousand eggs, so in infected areas where mice and rats carry the disease, there is a huge possibility for the generation of ticks that carry and spread the disease.

Lyme disease was first described in people living in Lyme, Conneticut, USA in the 1970’s, and later in the 1980’s it was identified in cats and dogs. Although not very common in the UK there have been some reports that cases in humans are on the increase.

Signs associated with Lyme disease in dogs

Stiffness or lameness that may shift from one joint to another
Lack of appetite

How to remove a tick

The two most effective ways of removing a tick from your dog are either using a proprietary licensed treatment, which will cause the tick to die and drop off, or manual removal.

To remove a tick it is important to break the seal between the mouthparts and skin surface. One way is to hold the tick with your index finger and thumb and twist the tick with a slight rocking motion. Another way is to use a specially designed tool called a “Tick Hook Tool” which does all this for you in one swift twisting motion. This is generally the best method for inexperienced hands. Which ever method you choose it is important that the mouthparts come out to prevent further irritation or problems.

Prevention of disease

Although many ticks will not be carrying disease you cannot tell which ones are. It is safer to treat them all in the same way and make sure that once they have attached they come off as soon as possible. Most of the tick treatments on the market are designed to kill ticks, a few also claim to be able to repel ticks as well but are not yet 100% effective.

When a tick has attached itself it usually takes between 24 and 48 hours before it starts to transmit any disease. It is important therefore that the tick is killed or removed before this time. The various ‘spot-on’ formulations, collars and sprays marketed through the veterinary profession have all been proven to be effective at doing this provided they are used properly. It is very important that you follow the instructions on the packaging. A tick has such a thick body wall it takes a relatively high level of chemical to penetrate and take effect compared to fleas.

Most of the ‘spot on’ products that are advertised for tick and flea treatment must be applied on a MONTHLY basis so that it will be effective against the ticks all the time. Be careful with respect to bathing or swimming the dog soon after treatment as you don’t want to wash the product away or contaminate the environment with the chemical.