Over the last few years, vets and pet owners have been reporting increased numbers of ticks on dogs. The increase may be due to warmer winters, more people exercising their dogs in rural areas, and changes to farming practices.
There are over 20 different species of tick in the UK, but all are similar in appearance. They have round bodies, four pairs of legs (as adults), no discernible head, and no wings. Tick larvae can be as small as a poppy seed, whilst a fed tick can be as large as 11mm!
Ticks can’t fly or jump, instead, climbing up plants and waiting to latch onto a host with hooks on their legs. Once on a dog the tick burrows into the fur and feels around for a suitable feeding site. The axillae (armpits), groin, and behind the ears are common places to find ticks. Ticks don’t have heads, just mouthparts which saw into the skin whilst injecting saliva which prevents the blood clotting. Once a tick is fully engorged it drops off to begin the next part of its life cycle.
When ticks feed they can spread diseases. Many areas of the UK are high risk for Lyme’s disease and last year there were cases of Babesiosis in Essex; previously Babesiosis had only been seen in dogs which had travelled abroad.
Understandably, concerned dog owners turn to the internet for advice, but as well as good advice, there is advice which is potentially dangerous:
The myth: Ticks can be killed by covering them with Vaseline/ liquid soap/ peppermint oil/ whisky etc.
The truth: True, but very dangerous! Smothering a tick increases the risk of it regurgitating blood into the host and spreading disease.
The myth: You must be careful not to leave the head in.
The truth: Ticks don’t have heads. You should be careful not to break off the mouth parts but even if you do the dog will recover.
The myth: Red lump means the head is still in the skin.
The truth: Again, ticks don’t have heads. A red swelling is common even with proper removal as it is often a reaction to the tick saliva.
The myth: Ticks won’t spread disease for 48hours after biting.
The truth: This was believed to be true until very recently. It is now thought that disease can sometimes be spread as soon as a tick bites.
The easiest way to remove a tick is using a specially designed tick hook; they simply slide under the body and when you rotate the tick lifts off. Removed ticks should be wrapped in tissue and flushed away, they must never be crushed.
Many different tick spot-ons, tablets, sprays, and collars are available if your dog is prone to getting ticks. Some repel ticks, but others need the tick to bite; others might be less suitable for dogs who swim regularly. Speak to your vet who can suggest the best options for your dog. Tick-borne diseases can be slow to show symptoms, so mention any bites to your vet even if they occurred months before an illness.