Guide to ticks: how to protect your dog and treat tick bites

Although we would usually associate ticks with warm summers and lush, long grass, their numbers are rising across the UK due to changing climates and habitats, and an increasing numbers of hosts. But what does this mean for our dogs? Veterinary nurse Laura Hawkins guides us through what ticks are, how to spot signs of infection and what you can do to protect your dog from these parasites.

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What are ticks?

Ticks are blood-sucking parasites that 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.

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There are three types of tick 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. While living on their host, they will also find a mate with whom they will reproduce.

The places we frequent with our dogs during their training or whilst walking commonly have heather, bracken, grassland or woodland. These are generally prime habitat for ticks, but with vigilance and care, there are precautions we can take to minimise the risks.

What are the health risks to your dog if it is bitten by a tick?

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Anti-parasitic pipette used on a dog | Credit: Getty Images

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 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. Previously only found abroad, there have now been three reported cases 
of the disease in the UK. This disease is fatal to dogs and can be for humans, too. There are currently no vaccines available against it. Symptoms might include lethargy, pale gums, jaundice, red/brown urine and fever.

How can tick bites be prevented in dogs?

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Ticks can transmit Lyme disease, a long-term illness | Credit: Getty Images

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 that will kill ticks within 24 hours (the desired time frame) but also repel ticks and stop them 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, so they can act as a repellent or is consumed by any feeding ticks, which are killed shortly after.

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 with blood-swollen abdomens. The characteristic rash associated with Lyme disease and often observed around the site of a tick bite in human cases, is generally not seen in dogs.

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Border Collie having tick removed | Credit: Getty Images

How to remove a tick

If a tick is found, it is vital that
 it’s removed correctly. However, early removal is only helpful if done properly, and the tick remains without releasing the saliva that carries disease.

A tick hook offers the best method of removal. The small device fits under the body of the tick and is 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, whilst 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.  

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Main image: Getty