Tick Bite Prevention Week
It’s tick bite prevention week and Jo McKenzie our IAPWA Romania Programme Manager, has put together advise on how you can avoid or prevent ticks on your pets which could potentially lead to life-threatening diseases.
What are ticks?
Ticks are small, 8-legged arachnids that are found on every continent in the world, most commonly in woodland, moorland and grassland areas. There are many different species of tick, but they have flat, oval-shaped bodies and are generally reddish-brown or black in colour. Before they feed, they are only approximately 1-3mm in length, which can make them difficult to spot. Ticks consume the blood of other animals and grow larger as they feed, often turning lighter in colour as they grow. After feeding, the body can be over 1cm long, approximately the size and shape of a pea.
How do animals (and people) get ticks?
Ticks need to attach themselves to an animal or person (known as the host) in order to feed on their blood.
As ticks cannot jump or fly, they climb onto grasses or leaves and wait until the host brushes past. This allows them to drop on to the passing animal and attach to their skin.
Once on the host, the tick may stay attached for several days, slowly ingesting blood. The tick’s saliva has anaesthetic properties which means that the host may not know that it has been bitten.
Different countries have different species of ticks and different tick-borne diseases, but some of the most common of these which affect both animals and humans include:
- Lyme borreliosis (Lyme disease). This is a bacterial infection characterised by flu-like symptoms, joint pain and fatigue. It is rarely life-threatening but if left untreated it can affect the organs, and the longer it’s untreated the more severe the symptoms are likely to be. It may cause a circular “bullseye” rash around the tick bite, but this is not always the case.
- Babesiosis. This disease is caused by the microscopic babesia parasite which attacks and destroys red blood cells, leading to anaemia. Other symptoms include fever, chills, fatigue and muscle pain, and the condition can be life-threatening if left untreated.
- Anaplasmosis. This is a bacterial infection which causes fever, chills, headaches and muscle pain. People and animals who are immunocompromised can develop more severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, neurological problems or kidney failure, and without treatment the condition can ultimately be fatal.
- Ehrlichiosis. Another bacterial infection, ehrlichiosis causes fever, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches and loss of appetite. In dogs, bleeding, low blood cell counts, neurological problems and secondary bacterial infections are all common. Chronic ehrlichiosis is often fatal.
What should I do if my pet or myself gets a tick?
The sooner a tick is removed after attaching to the host, the less chance it will spread disease. If you find one on yourself or your pet, never try to pull it straight off. When ticks attach to their host, they bury their mouthparts in the skin and if they are pulled, the mouthparts can detach and stay in the skin, causing infection. Another possibility is that when the tick is grasped between fingers or tweezer tips, its body is squeezed causing it to expel blood back into the host’s bloodstream and increasing the risk of disease transmission.
There are multiple methods recommended online for removing ticks, but the best and safest way is to use a specially designed tick removing tool which can be purchased from vet practices, pet shops or online. Using one of these tools, the tick is twisted off rather than pulled, which minimises the risk of leaving mouthparts behind or of the tick’s body being squeezed.
In the UK, ticks removed from people or animals can be sent to the UK Health Security Agency as part of the Tick Surveillance Scheme. While this scheme does not test the ticks for the presence of disease, it does play a valuable role in monitoring the types of ticks present in the UK and their distribution.
How to avoid/prevent ticks
In the case of tick-borne diseases, prevention is better than cure, and there are several precautions that you can take to reduce the risk of yourself or your pet being bitten by a tick.
Use regular tick prevention treatment on pets. There are various products available, in different forms including spot-on, collars and tablets. In general, although they are usually slightly more expensive, those products which can only be bought from a veterinary practice are superior to the products which can be bought over the counter.
This is because they contain prescription-only ingredients which tend to be more effective. Speak to your vet to discuss the best option for your pet. If you do decide to buy tick prevention from the supermarket or pet shop, be aware that some of the products used for tick control in dogs are extremely toxic to cats, so take care that the product you buy is safe for use on your cat.
- Use an insect repellent containing DEET on yourself when walking in the countryside.
- Keep your skin covered and trousers tucked into socks to make it more difficult for ticks to reach your skin.
- Where possible, stick to paths and try to avoid walking through undergrowth, long grasses and heather, especially in the spring and autumn when ticks are most active.
- Wearing light coloured clothing can make it easier to spot ticks that do drop onto you, allowing you to brush them away before they have time to bite you.
- Check yourself and your pets for ticks daily, even if you have been using a suitable preventative treatment. Tick bites are rarely painful so can be easily missed.
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