There’s much we can do to protect our dogs from the prolific parasites, says veterinary nurse Laura Hawkins.
Author Laura Hawkins
Tick numbers are rising across the UK due to changing climates and habitats, along with an increasing number of hosts. But what does this mean for our dogs?
Ticks are blood-sucking parasites which belong to the spider family. They are placed only behind mosquitoes in the disease transmission stakes, spreading infectious disease to humans and animals, and from one mammalian host to another.
There are three types commonly found in the UK: Ixodes ricinus (the sheep/deer tick); Ixodes hexagonus (the hedgehog tick) and Ixodes canisuga (the British dog or fox tick). Ticks can live for up to three years and will feed on the blood of a single host in each of their life stages – as larvae, nymphs and adults. Whilst living on their host, they will also find a mate with which they will reproduce.
The places we walk, work or train our dogs – heather, bracken, grassland, woodland – are generally prime habitat for ticks, but with vigilance and care, there’s much we can do to minimise the associated risks.
Ticks can transmit a wide variety of diseases through their saliva. The most commonly known is Lyme disease which can cause long-term illness to both humans and dogs and is caused by infection with a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, lameness, and swelling of joints and or/lymph nodes and glands.
More recently, Babesiosis has also reared its ugly head. There have now been three reported cases of the disease – previously only found abroad – in the UK. This disease is fatal to dogs, and can be for humans, too. There is currently no vaccine available against it. Symptoms might include lethargy, pale gums, jaundice, red/brown urine and fever.
Prevention of such diseases is crucial. Recent studies show that the tick will only release saliva into the host at the second stage of feeding which comes after 24 hours. So if we can remove ticks within this time frame it massively reduces the chance of infection.
Of course, reducing the likelihood of ticks attaching themselves to our dogs in the first place is the most preferable scenario. There are several products available to dog owners which will kill ticks within 24 hours (the desired time frame) but also repel ticks and stop them from biting in the first place. The latter helps further protect our dogs in the rare event of a tick becoming attached after spending time on another host, and therefore potentially nearing the stage at which it is ready to release saliva. Spot-on treatments, sprays and collars are designed to impregnate the fatty layer of a dog’s skin. This acts as a repellant or is consumed by any feeding ticks which are killed shortly thereafter.
Regularly checking dogs pays dividends and is good practice in general, helping you to spot any abnormalities as quickly as possible. Bear in mind that ‘unfed’ ticks are very small and far less noticeable than those which have been attached for a while and have blood-swollen abdomens.
The characteristic rash associated with Lyme disease which is often observed around the site of a tick bite in human cases, is generally not seen in dogs.
If a tick is found, it is vital that is removed correctly. However, early removal is only helpful if done properly, and the tick remains intact without releasing the saliva which carries disease. Tick hooks are small devices that fit under the body of the tick and are used in a twisting motion to ensure both the head and legs of the parasite are removed intact with the body. A tick should never just be pulled off, burnt or ‘suffocated’ using Vaseline etc., as this can cause further problems; when ticks become stressed, they will release saliva – which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. If the body is pulled away and the head left in the dog, saliva will be released, and the head can cause infection, irritation and lead to an abscess.
At the end of the day, there is no fail-safe way of protecting our dogs from ticks, but we can – through preventative and precautionary measures – give our faithful friends the best chance possible.
A prime example
I have seen a case of Lyme disease in practice: A healthy seven-year-old dog that picked up a tick which was successfully removed by the owner. Eighteen months later the same dog was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
She was presented to the surgery with symptoms roughly three months after tick removal, initially with just very slight lameness, walking as if the floor was hot. At eight months post tick removal, she was showing signs similar to what we would see with meningitis – stiffness in her shoulders and neck, and irritation under bright lights.
Many tests were run before diagnosis including MRI scans, and it took three strong courses of antibiotics to finally clear the disease.