Ticks are small parasites, which feed on the blood of mammals (including humans), reptiles and birds. They are closely related to spiders and mites. They do not have wings and cannot fly, they do not jump. They travel by walking on the ground and up plants.
They find a host (the person or animal they will feed on) by picking up chemical cues from breath and body odour, as well as heat, vibrations and shadows. They latch onto a passing or resting host by using special hooks on their legs.
Some species of tick live in the burrows or nests of animals and birds and complete their life cycle there.
Ticks vary in colour (ranging from reddish to dark brown or black), and differ in size, depending on the species, age and sex of the tick, and whether it has fed.
An unfed female is approximately 3mm (sesame-seed-size) and she is small, oval and flat. When fully engorged, she can reach 11mm. Unfed males are smaller, at approximately 2.5mm. Unfed nymphs (which are semi grown) are smaller still, at around 1.5mm, and the larvae (which are newly hatched) are a tiny 0.5mm (the size of a poppy seed). Even at such a tiny size, larvae can still transmit certain infections. Once fed, a tick can become considerably bigger, with the exception of the male, which takes smaller meals.
Like the rest of their ‘relations’, the spiders, scorpions, mites and harvestmen, ticks have eight legs. However, when they hatch from their eggs (at this stage, they are called ‘larvae’), they only have six legs. They immediately need to feed to gain strength and to grow and moult to their next stage (when they become nymphs).
At the nymph stage, they have eight legs. They continue to feed and moult to the last stage, which is an adult.
Three particular species of tick are more likely to attach to people and their pets in the UK. One is Ixodes ricinus (also known as the sheep tick, wood tick, deer tick and castor bean tick). The second is Ixodes hexagonus (also known as the hedgehog tick). The third is Dermacentor reticulatus (also known as the ornate cow tick or the marsh tick).
However, there are over 20 species of ticks in Britain, and a number of them have been known to attach to people or pets. It can depend on the area, habitat and surrounding wildlife, as to which species are most abundant.
Ticks normally choose wildlife and farm livestock to be their hosts. However, people and pets send out the same signals (body heat and chemicals) as the tick’s usual hosts. The tick recognises these signals as being from a potential host and they will readily attach. Because we as humans are not generally the intended host, we become ‘incidental hosts’, meaning that we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Due to various factors, ticks are more abundant and are active for longer periods (even at low temperatures), than in previous years, therefore it has become more common for us to be incidental hosts.
Many people have never heard of ticks. Others do know what they are but are unaware that ticks in the UK and Ireland can carry and transmit a number of diseases to all manner of wildlife, livestock, domestic pets and humans, and not just in rural areas.
Unfortunately, various combined factors now mean that we, and our pets, are at increased risk of contracting a tick-borne infection.
There is no need to panic about ticks but an awareness of their presence, the simple precautions that can be taken against tick bites on people and pets, and how to remove them safely, is key to avoiding contracting tick-borne diseases.
There are a number of bacterial, viral, rickettsial and protozoal diseases carried by UK ticks. Several of these can cause debilitating symptoms in humans and animals. However, there are no vaccines available to defend against them.
Therefore, awareness and preventative measures are the best defence.
Not all ticks carry tick-borne disease and not every bite from an infected tick will result in disease transmission. However, sometimes bacteria (such as organisms contained in the soil) can be introduced from the tick’s mouth parts, and this may lead to a bacterial cellulitis (a localised infection of the skin). Scratching at a tick bite (or any insect bite) can introduce bacteria and result in a skin infection.
The tick’s mouth parts can remain in the skin if it has been removed incorrectly, or been scratched off, and this can sometimes result in a localised infection. More often than not the body isolates the tick mouth parts and a hard lump will remain. Although it may cause irritation for a while, this usually settles down. Remaining mouth parts can be removed by a doctor or vet if they become troublesome. If there are signs of significant inflammation beyond 48 hours of a tick bite, or signs of infection, it is advisable to seek medical / veterinary advice.
Prevention is better than cure!
Tick-control products that are “spot on” or “spray on” are available but are not suitable for all types of animal. Talk to us here at My Pets Vets, about which control method is suitable for your particular pet.
Safe Tick Removal
We advise the use of O’Tom tick twister here at My Pets Vets – we have these in stock at reception for purchase.
There are a number of tick-removal tools on the market all over the world. All claim to be safe and effective but this may not always be the case. In choosing a tick-removal tool, it is important to remember that the most important aspects of tick removal are:
• The tick’s body must not be compressed, as this can force out saliva and gut contents which may contain disease-causing organisms.
• The tick should not be irritated or injured, as this may result in it regurgitating (vomiting) saliva and gut contents along with any disease-causing organisms.
• The mouth parts of the tick should be cleanly removed along with the rest of its body.
• The tick should be removed without causing the host discomfort.
The O’Tom Tick Twister ® is favoured by professionals (veterinary, medical, forestry and field workers etc), as well as by members of the general public. We stock these for sale at My Pets Vets, and are happy to demonstrate how to use them.
Ideally, wear rubber / plastic gloves or, in the absence of gloves, shield fingers with tissue or paper.
• Choose the most suitable O’Tom Tick Twister ® tool, according to the size of the tick (each pack contains two sizes, one for adult ticks and one for the tiny nymph ticks).
• Engage the tool by approaching the tick from the side (the body of the tick is flat when unfed) until it is held securely.
• Lift the tool very lightly and TURN IT (clockwise or counter-clockwise). The tick detaches itself after 2-3 rotations.
• After removing the tick, disinfect the bite site and wash hands with soap and water.
• You may want to save the tick for identification in case the person or animal the tick was attached to becomes ill within several weeks. To save the tick, write the date of the bite in pencil on a piece of paper and put it with the tick in a sealed plastic bag and store it in a freezer. Your doctor / vet can then identify that a tick bite has occurred and use this information to assist in making an accurate diagnosis.
Although not every tick carries disease, immediate removal of an attached tick is recommended.
DO NOT use petroleum jelly, any liquid solutions, or freeze / burn the tick, as this is likely to stimulate it to regurgitate (vomit) saliva and stomach contents, increasing the chance of infection.
Pet Travel Abroad
Although treatment for ticks is no longer mandatory, pets travelling abroad can be exposed to serious diseases, such as Babesiosis, which can be fatal. Untreated pets could also carry exotic species of ticks back into the UK. It is therefore still recommended that all pets are protected against ticks before and during their travels abroad.
We will be happy to advise you on the best products to use when travelling with your pet.