Written by Davina Evans
Ahh, summertime. The perfect time of the year for picnics, barbecues and long strolls in the woods with your pet.
But, be aware, for if you go into the woods today you may be sure of a nasty shock rather than a surprise, as you and your pet could be a victim of: The Attack Of The Tick!
No, not that Tick, this tick:
What Are Ticks?
Ticks are arachnids. These spider-like creatures are usually only 3-5mm long and live in woods and areas with long grass. According to Lyme Disease Action, there are many different varieties of tick in Britain, but they all feed on the blood of their preferred hosts, and they have an egg-shaped body that becomes larger and darker when filled with blood (resembling a coffee bean).
The Sheep Tick (Ixodes Ricinus) is the variety that will feed on various mammals and birds – including humans, dogs and cats. Second only to mosquitos in the spread of infectious diseases, ticks can pass on the potentially deadly Lyme Disease.
A tick will live for approximately 3 years but will only need 3 meals during that time. Ticks have four stages to their life cycle; egg, larva, nymph and adult, so they need to ensure they have enough blood to move from the larva stage, to nymph, and finally to adult. It is the nymph that is most likely to bite you.
(Image: Life Cycle Of A Tick. www.lymediseaseaction.org.uk)
The tick can sense potential hosts by the carbon dioxide we give off. They reach out with their front legs, which is known as ‘questing’, and use the claws on their legs to latch on to a passing victim.
Ticks are known as ectoparasites (external parasites) as they remain outside of the host, apart from their mouth parts. The front of the tick is all mouth with 2 sets of hooks. The hooks pull the flesh out of the way and wriggle the mouth forward under the skin. The hooks will stay attached as an anchor for the tick to stay in place whilst it feeds - for up to 7 days if undisturbed. Compounds in the tick’s saliva makes the blood pool under the skin, making it easier for the tick to suck up the blood through their straw-like mouth parts.
Once a tick has finished its meal, it will fall off the host wherever it may be at that time (maybe even in your bed if you have been its victim!)
Ticks are commonly more active during the spring and summer months, however, they can be found throughout the year, there are just fewer cases recorded due to less people and pets becoming exposed to them in their natural habitat during the colder months.
How To Check For Ticks
If your pet has been in areas with long grass, such as fields, meadows, forests and woods, you should check them straightaway for ticks. Firstly, run your fingers through their fur with gentle pressure to feel for any small lumps, and check in the following areas:
- In and around the ears
- Around the eyes and eyelids
- Under the collar and all around the neck
- Under the front legs
- Between the back legs
- Between the toes
- Around the tail
If you accompany your pet for walks in areas with long grass, you can take certain precautions to stop ticks from latching on to you, or any children that may be with you.
Try to ensure all skin is covered by tucking trousers into socks, wear closed-toed shoes, wear light coloured clothing so that any ticks will show up, and use an insect repellent that contains DEET (DEET is an active ingredient that deters and repels insects by interfering with the neurons and receptors located on their antennae and mouth-parts – the areas that detect the chemicals we give off, such as lactic acid and carbon dioxide. DEET was initially developed by the US Army in 1946 for their military personnel who were deployed to insect-infested areas, and it was registered for civilian use in 1957).
Once you return from your walk, check all clothing for ticks and brush them off BEFORE you enter your home. Check all parts of your body for ticks thoroughly – remember, they can be as small as a poppy seed! – especially between joints (behind knees, elbows and armpits), groin areas, behind your ears, and anywhere covered in hair as ticks love warm places. Having a shower after your walk is the best way to refresh and check for ticks at the same time.
Not all ticks are infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. In the UK, no more than 10% of Sheep Ticks carry this bacterium. However, if you get bitten by an infected tick, it usually takes between 24-48 hours for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease to be transmitted to the host, therefore, immediate removal of any tick is paramount.
What Is Lyme Disease And Its Symptoms?
Lyme disease is a potentially devastating bacterial infection that can be contracted by being bitten by an infected tick. Humans, dogs, cats, horses, deer, cattle, mice, chipmunks, grey squirrels, raccoons and opossums can all be infected with Lyme disease.
Due to warmer temperatures, Lyme Disease is becoming more common in the UK, especially in the South East where there is a very high tick population. Public Health England published figures for 2016 and 2017 that showed infections were up by nearly 35%, with approximately 3,000 new cases being reported each year. With such an increase of humans and animals being at risk of this disease, prevention is key
Lyme disease cannot be transmitted directly from pet to human, or vice-versa, but, if a pet brings home an infected tick which then transfers to a human, the disease can be spread that way.
In humans, Lyme disease can cause fevers, sweats, swollen glands, neck pain or stiffness, fatigue, headaches, memory loss, joint or muscle pains, and many of the symptoms that come along when you have the ‘flu. These symptoms can persist for months, or even years, causing serious inflammation and damage to major organs - such as the heart – as well as arthritic and neurological problems. Although not always present, a circular red rash with a red area inside it – also known as a ‘bulls-eye rash’ – can appear from 3 days to 3 months after a bite from an infected tick. This is sometimes not even noticed as it does not appear inflamed, hot or itchy.
(Image: Bulls-Eye Rash associated with Lyme Disease. www.nhs.co.uk)
Animals do not develop the bulls-eye rash (erythema migrans), so you need to be vigilant to any other symptoms they may start to exhibit. These include:
- Joint swelling or pain
- Shifting leg lameness or stiffness
- Extreme lethargy
As with humans, the symptoms can be quite nonspecific and difficult to recognise, so being thorough with checking your pet for ticks is the best advice. If any are found, remove them immediately and contact your vet to see if they need to undertake any screening tests.
Diagnosis And Treatment
In pets, if recognised early enough, veterinarians can successfully treat Lyme disease with a 4-week course of amoxicillin or doxycycline antibiotics. However, if missed, chronic diseases can develop, such as Protein Losing Nephropathy (PLN = a disease that causes protein loss into the urine. This protein is toxic to the kidneys and can ultimately lead to chronic renal disease), Non-Erosive Polyarthritis (which can affect 4 or more joints simultaneously), and, in rare cases, seizures, heart disease and behavioural changes.
Preventative treatment can be administered in pets as well. In the UK you can get spot-on treatments, sprays, collars and tablets that either repel or kill the tick if they attach. BE CAREFUL: make sure you do not give dog treatments to cats or vice-versa as they are animal-specific and may contain certain chemicals that can be toxic or fatal to other species.
In humans, there are two main blood tests that can diagnose Lyme disease; ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) and Western Blot. Unfortunately, these are not always accurate and results can take up to 6 weeks to come back. In the meantime, a GP can prescribe one or two courses of antibiotics to completely clear any infections.
Removal Of Ticks
Removal of ticks can be an easy process if you follow the correct procedure and use the correct tools. DO NOT squeeze the body as this can squeeze any infected blood back into the host, and DO NOT twist the tick so much that it causes the body to sever from the head leaving it attached to the host – this too increases the risk of the disease being transmitted to the host.
Old wives tales about suffocating ticks and making them drop off by smothering them with lotions or Vaseline do not work. Neither does burning them off with a lighter. Attempting any of these ‘remedies’ will only result in the tick panicking, regurgitating any fluids, and increase the chance of infection.
You can use fine-tipped tweezers, but tick removal tools are inexpensive and extremely effective at removing the tick intact. They are available in many pet stores and from your vet.
A pack of 2 is also available at Store Paws HERE for just £2. It removes ticks easily, painlessly and safely from any animal (also suitable for humans). The two different sized tools ensure that it can be used for any size tick.
(Image: Pack of 2 Tick Remover Tools. www.storepaws.co.uk)
The best way to remove the tick with the tool (or using fine-tipped tweezers) is as follows:
- Slide the divot of the tick removal tool around the body of the tick (if using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible).
- Applying steady, even pressure, slowly pull upwards without twisting or jerking.
- The whole tick, including the mouth parts, should release and come out whole.
- If some mouth parts remain embedded, try and remove with tweezers.
- Thoroughly clean the area and the tool you used with rubbing alcohol or an antibacterial soap.
- If you are worried that medical attention may be needed, it may be a good idea to take a picture of the tick for identification purposes.
- Flush or burn the tick. DO NOT crush it with your fingers as this will expose you to any pathogen the tick could potentially be carrying.
- Keep a close eye on the bite site for rash or any of the above-mentioned symptoms.
Here is a video tutorial showing how to properly remove a tick:
And Finally... News Stories Of People Who Have Contracted Lyme Disease
Here are some recent real-life stories of people battling Lyme Disease that have been highlighted by the national media. The importance of checking and removal of ticks, along with seeking medical attention promptly, cannot be underestimated.
Surfer 'cannot walk' and has memory loss after tick bite at festival led to Lyme disease (source: The Mirror 17th July 2019)
My brush with Lyme disease: how tick bites turned family day out to disaster (source: The Guardian 4th August 2019)
Stephanie Todd, 22, from South Gloucestershire, battling late stage Lyme Disease (source: The Mirror 5th August 2019)
Written by Davina Evans for Store Paws. All facts are correct at time of writing. Any views and opinions expressed are those of the author only.