Ticks are back. And this year they’re more harmful than ever.
The UK government is investigating a recent outbreak of babesiosis, a malaria-like parasitic disease that has reportedly left two dogs dead and a number of others needing blood transfusions. Make no mistake, ticks are a real threat.
As their population increases each year, so does the risk of spreading infection. Owners are being warned to take extra precautions when it comes to protecting their pets.
But don’t lose hope, dog lovers. Our tactics on how to deal with these little bloodsuckers should help you, and your four-legged friend, enjoy a tick-free summer.
Know your enemy
Ticks are small, bloodsucking arthropods; so they have a body divided into segments, with an external skeleton they can shed. They’re related to spiders, mites and scorpions, and can be just as deadly.
Feeding on the blood of animals, they pick up infections that can be passed from one prey to the next; much in the same way mosquitos spread malaria. They often carry several viruses at once, although the most common one detected is Lyme disease.
Several types of ticks can be found in Britain, each preferring different animals to nibble on. But don’t think you’re safe just because you walk on two legs; Ixodes ticks will happily bite humans given the chance.
Understand how they operate
Ticks don’t jump or fly. They quest.
Despite being most active during the summer months, their bodies dry out easily so they lurk in damp shady areas of vegetation where they wait patiently for their target to brush past… then they latch on with their hooked front legs.
About the size of a poppy seed, they usually go unnoticed. But once a tick starts to feed, its body fills with blood and swells several times larger into a lighter colour. It will then feed on its victim for up to a week before letting go and dropping off.
Their bites are hard to detect and signs of tickborne disease may not appear for up to three weeks afterwards. In short: they’re crafty little bugs.
Put prevention into practice
Reducing the exposure to ticks is the best defence against Lyme disease and other infections, yet this is easier said than done.
Spraying your clothes with high-DEET repellent before walkies, and tumble-drying them on a high heat afterwards, is an effective way to avoid bringing ticks into the home… but you can’t exactly do that to your dog.
Talk to your vet about pet-friendly preventives. Repellents from Advantix and Frontline Plus, combined with a Preventic or Seresto collar, could help prevent bites as they have anti-feeding effects once the tick comes into contact with the chemical.
It’s always worth brushing off pets before letting them inside the house, as ticks rarely bite straight away, preferring to spend time finding a suitable site on the skin before tucking in.
Watch your dog’s behaviour. If they are excessively scratching or licking a particular area, or continuously shaking their head as if something is irritating their inner ear, a nasty tick could be at work.
Most owners will only know when their pet has been bitten if they see the tick attached. But spotting them in all that fur is no easy task. That’s why it’s essential to check your dog daily.
You’ll probably find more success if you feel for them. Starting at the head, use your fingers like the teeth of a comb to check for any unusual lumps, including under the collar, inside the ears and between the paws. Disguise this grooming ritual as an affectionate cuddle and your dog will be none the wiser.
Destroy and dispose
If you do find a sneaky tick feeding on your pup, don’t attempt to burn it off. Contrary to belief, heat doesn’t encourage them to detach from the skin and we’re pretty sure your pooch won’t appreciate it. Also, resist the temptation to squeeze or crush the tick as the body might break off, leaving the head embedded within the skin.
Your number one goal is to remove all parts of the tick’s body without it releasing any additional saliva or regurgitating its stomach contents into the wound. It’s a grim job.
Thankfully there are effective devices on the market to help you. The professionals seem to favour the O’Tom Tick Twister, as it cradles the tick without adding pressure to its mouth. This allows you to use an effective twisting technique that isn’t normally recommended when using tweezers. BADU-UK has a good guide on how to use and remove with this tool.
If you don’t have a specialised removal tool, a fine-tipped pair of tweezers might still do the job. Just grasp the tick as close to the skin as you can and pull up with a steady, even pressure without twisting or jerking.
If the mouth does separate from the body and you are unable to remove it, leave it alone and let the skin heal. If the tick is deep inside your dog’s ear, don’t attempt to remove it yourself. Visit your vet so they can do it for you.
Always treat the bite area afterwards, and don’t forget to wash your hands and clean the tool with antiseptic. If you wish to dispose of the tick, submerse it in alcohol, wrap it tightly in tape and throw it in the bin, or flush it down the toilet. However, it might be an idea to save it in a labelled container for the vet, just in case symptoms develop later on.
Scrutinise the symptoms
Even though the tick has been successfully destroyed, the danger can remain for weeks. Keep a close eye out for any unusual changes in your dog’s behaviour: high fever, loss of appetite, coffee coloured urine, vomiting, lethargy and depression are all possible reactions in dogs that have been bitten by ticks.
Other symptoms are more life threatening. Tick toxin can directly affect the nervous system, causing numbness and loss of muscle tone.
If you suspect any of these signs within your dog, visit the vet straight away for a check up.