Finally, spring is almost here! A time for new beginnings, when flowers burst into bloom and baby animals take their first wobbly steps into the world. The arrival of some sunshine is a welcome relief to most of us, after what feels like an endless run of cold, dark days, but the rising temperatures can awaken some creatures that don’t make our hearts feel quite so glad. Ticks, that lay dormant during the winter months, sense that the world is warming up, and slowly emerge from their hiding places. But just what are these critters, and how do they affect you and your four-legged friends?
Ticks are arachnids (close relatives of the spider, in case you need an extra reason to dislike them), and these eight-legged creatures bite us, and our pets, to feed on our blood.
When we say they bite, we’re not talking about a quick nip. After piercing a hole in the skin with their specialised mouth parts, ticks insert a barbed, needle-like probe into the skin, to help anchor them firmly in place. Not content with this alone, they also inject a cement-like substance, which helps them cling on even more tightly.
And all for good reason: once the tick is locked in place, it isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Ticks feed for many days, even up to a week or more1, growing considerably as they fill with blood. In fact, they can increase in weight by up to 120 times during the feeding process!1
When female ticks have finally had their fill, they drop to the ground, and find somewhere warm and sheltered to lay their eggs. Tiny tick larvae hatch from the eggs, and feed on the blood of smaller mammals like rodents and birds, before dropping off to develop into nymphs. Nymphs also feed on smaller mammals, before finally maturing into new adult ticks.
Ticks are active in areas such as long grass and woodland, where they lie in wait for a warm-blooded animal to pass by. When they’re ready to feed, they climb to the top of the surrounding vegetation (such as the tip of a grass blade) to seek out their next meal. Ticks adopt a behaviour called “questing”, where they cling to the plant and wave out their front legs, a bit like hailing a taxi, ready to leap onto a passing pet (or person!).
If you or your pet brushes against this vegetation when out and about, the tick will take a flying leap onto the skin, and begin the process of feeding.
While certain areas are known “hot spots” for ticks (including the South West of England, East Anglia and Scotland), ticks can be found throughout the whole of the UK, which means that all pets can be at risk of a tick encounter. The chance of coming across one of these creatures is highest in the spring, early summer and autumn, as ticks thrive when conditions are warm and wet, but they can occasionally be found in colder months too. Ticks need vegetation to hide out in, and suitable animals to feed on, so areas of woodland, grassland and heather, especially where sheep and deer are in abundance, are prime spots for ticks to flourish.
Pets often have no idea they’ve been bitten; an ideal situation for the tick, as it allows it to continue feeding undisturbed! Performing regular “tick checks” on your pet is a great way to make sure one of these creatures hasn’t hitched a ride home on your furry pal during their travels.
Run your hands over your pet’s coat, and feel for any unusual bumps. Ticks prefer more hairless areas like armpits, groin, face and ears, but they can attach anywhere. The common UK tick, Ixodes ricinus, grows to around 1cm after feeding, and turns a greyish-brown colour as it fills with blood. Ticks can easily be mistaken for other types of skin lump, but the tiny waving legs at the base of the bump give away their true nature!
Ticks are not pleasant by anyone’s book, but the most concerning thing about them is that they can transmit serious diseases when they feed. In the UK, the most significant is Lyme Disease, a bacterial infection which can affect both pets and people after a bite from an infected tick.
It’s estimated that there may be up to 8000 new cases of Lyme Disease in people each year in the UK.2 The disease often (but not always) starts with a “bullseye rash”, and symptoms like a fever, headache, muscle and joint pain can occur a few days or weeks after the tick bite. Serious complications can arise if it’s left untreated, including facial paralysis, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and severe arthritis. If you’re worried about any unusual symptoms and suspect you may have been bitten, speak to your GP; as treatment is usually very successful if initiated early.
Infected dogs may not show any symptoms at all, but signs can include swollen lymph nodes, fever, and painful joints, and just like in people, long term problems can occur if it’s not treated early. Of course, all these symptoms can occur for many other reasons too, so it’s best to speak to your vet if you have any concerns.
There are other diseases that ticks can transmit to our pets too: one species of tick (called Dermacentor retiulatus) can transmit a disease called babesiosis to dogs. Although not common, cases have been reported in the UK, and it can be fatal.
It doesn’t make for the most enjoyable reading, does it, but thankfully there are some simple steps you can take to keep yourselves and your pets protected!
If you do spot a tick- don’t panic! Ticks are relatively easy to remove, once you know how. Remember that the tick’s mouth parts are firmly embedded, so, tempting as it may be, don’t yank at them too hard, as it risks leaving part of the tick behind in your pet’s skin. A special tool, called a tick hook, lets you do the job quickly and easily; simply slide the hook around the base of the tick and use a gentle twisting and pulling motion to pop the tick out. It’s a good idea to wear gloves when handling the tick, and after removal simply put it in a sealed box or bag, and get rid of it with the general waste.
Avoiding known tick hot spots during tick season is a good way to reduce the risks to you and your four-legged pals, but depending where you live, it can be difficult to bypass these areas altogether. Visiting wildlife can also bring ticks into your own back garden, so escaping them altogether is tricky!
Thankfully, there are simple and highly effective tick treatments that, used regularly, help protect your pet against these pesky creatures. Fipnil is an easy-to-apply spot-on for cats and dogs that kills not only ticks, but fleas too. It’s recommended for use every 4 weeks in dogs and cats, and used year-round will give your peace of mind that your pet is protected against these common pests.
When it comes to you and your family, you can lower the risks by covering up when you go for a walk (e.g. wearing long-sleeved tops and trousers, and even tucking trousers into your socks- it may not be your favourite look, but if it saves you from a tick bite it’s worth it!). Spraying insect repellent on your skin and clothes, and sticking to clear paths where possible will help too.
Don’t let ticks spoil your enjoyment of the great outdoors! By following these tips, and keeping your pet protected with regular tick treatment, you can both go back to enjoying the long-awaited spring sunshine, free from the worry of these troublesome pests!