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The Tick: prevent bites, prevent disease and keep your dog safe

little girl with her dog advice
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The tick (ixodes ricinus) is a member of the arachnida class: they are relatives of spiders. Learn how to prevent a tick from biting your dog. The size of a tick can vary; it can be as short as 1 mm and as long as 1 cm. Due to the way it feeds, the tick ranks alongside the mosquito as the number one transmitter of infectious diseases.

By Nick Whittle

Its anti-clotting saliva carries various bacteria, viruses and protozoa which it transmits from animal to animal when it feeds.

A tick is a parasite. It feeds on the blood of animals and birds and uses the same method to feed as does a mosquito. One of the differences between the two is that ticks will latch onto their host for far longer.

Ticks also cannot detach from their host’s skin spontaneously because the straw-like structure (hypostome) they use to drink through is lined with teeth which act like barbs.

It feeds until it is completely gorged with blood and its weight causes it to drop off. During this process its body can weigh 600 times more than before its feed. Ticks are most often found in the following settings and are more prevalent in spring and autumn.

Part of tick prevention is to avoid areas like this but of course doing so is not always possible:

  • Grassy areas such as fields and meadows
  • Woodland, esp. inhabited by deer
  • Heathland
  • Rural gardens
  • Farmland predominantly inhabited by sheep

How do I know if my dog has ticks?

Fortunately, most ticks are big enough to see with the naked eye. You may also feel the presence of small lumps and bumps on your dog’s skin should you run your hands over her.

Predominantly ticks latch onto skin around a dog’s head, neck, ears and feet. Ticks are flightless and cannot jump like fleas can. Instead they drop onto a dog as it brushes against infected grass or shrubs.

You will be able to recognise a new tick on your dog when you see the tick’s small pale, oval-shaped body. As it begins to feed it grows in size and become darker.

What can ticks do to my dog?

By far the most serious risk a tick bite poses to a dog’s health is of contamination of her blood. Tick saliva is likely to contain blood-borne pathogens, which have travelled with the tick from its last host. If allowed to spread unchecked some of these pathogens can have a devastating impact on the dog's health. Some of the diseases that are spread by ticks are as followed:

  • Tick paralysis (primarily North America, Australia, Southern Africa)
  • Tick-borne encephalitis
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Babesiosis
  • Lyme Borreliosis
  • Haemoplasmosis

In the UK the most common disease spread by ticks is Lyme Borreliosis.

Lyme borreliosis

Lyme borreliosis can be transmitted from dogs to humans and vice versa. In humans it is known as Lyme Disease. It is the single most diagnosed parasitic infection of canines in the UK. The bacterium borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato is responsible for canine Lyme disease. If untreated it causes fevers, loss of appetite, vomiting and inflammation of the joints. If the bacterium’s infection overwhelms a dog's biological defences it may even cause kidney failure.

Knowing where ticks like to live will help to prevent bites.
To prevent tick bites, avoid heathland and farmland.
© Vincent van Zalinge. Unsplash
 

Babesiosis

Babesiosis is a disease brought on by the babesia protozoan: a single celled parasite. It is not as common as the borrelia, but an ‘outbreak’ in southern England was reported in 2016. Babesiosis is most commonly found in dogs native to some central European countries.

The symptoms of babesiosis can be very slow to manifest and can even be mistaken with other diseases. The parasite damages the dog’s red blood cells, causing anaemia.

If your dog is suffering from a chronic lack of energy and a reduced appetite, or appears to be losing weight quickly then she may be infected with tick-borne babesia protozoa.

How to prevent ticks on dogs?

If you are a dog owner living in a rural part of the UK, you may be aware of the dangers of ticks. Sometimes councils put up posters at the entrances to parks and heathland that warn of the likelihood of a tick bite and what to do if you find a tick on your dog.

Some other practical measures to prevent dog tick bites (and diseases) are as follows:

  • Always carry a tick removal tool (or fine-point tweezers)
  • Avoid brushing through overhanging vegetation
  • Walk in the middle of paths when surrounded by countryside
  •  Keep gardens clean of debris and keep your lawn short
  • Check your dog thoroughly after a walk
  • Brush your dog with and against the flow of her fur
  • Pay special attention to your dog’s coat if she is from a long-haired breed
  • Avoid habitats of foxes and hedgehogs (if at all possible)
  • Remove a tick quickly (but correctly) if you spot one
Know how to properly remove a tick.
Take a tick removal tool with you on walks.
© Cam Bowers. Unsplash
 

Removal of a tick

Do not just pull a tick from the skin. With your tick removal tool or fine-point tweezers placed against the dog’s skin, take a gentle hold of the tick. Then, pull straight upwards slowly to prevent the tick’s mouthparts breaking off.

If you pull quickly, you are likely to rip the tick apart causing the mouthparts to stay embedded in your dog’s skin and, worse still, the blood and pathogens it carries to be regurgitated into your dog.

Net Doctor suggests in the case of tick bites of humans that if the tick can be detached by whatever means before 36 hours elapses the host is far less likely to be infected by a disease.

It is worthwhile to employ an anti-tick ointment, oral tablet or a collar infused with anti-parasite medicines. They appear to be very effective in preventing a tick from latching on and there are a great many to choose from.

If you are vigilant and strict about after-walk care you should be able to prevent a tick from biting your dog.