Spring is here, and the Spring Rise of ticks has arrived. Ticks are tiny blood sucking
parasites, closely related to spiders. They have complicated life cycles, and are not very active for much of the year. However, in the Spring and Autumn, they have so-called ‘Rises’, when there is a sudden surge in their numbers and activity. Thousands of almost invisible tick larvae climb up on grass stems and other vegetation, and wait for a suitable animal to stroll past. They wave their legs towards any passing creatures, and ‘hitch a lift’ as the animal brushes against them. They then clamber up to a suitably succulent piece of skin, and bury their needle-like mouth parts under the surface of the skin, into a juicy blood vessel. They spend the next few weeks sucking blood, and they swell up from pin-head sized to pea sized or bigger. At this stage, they relax their grip and tumble off the animal into the undergrowth again. They go through a few repeat cycles, with moults in between, and finally, they become adult ticks and they mate. The adult females go through the same blood-sucking, swelling-up phase, but when they fall off this time, they lay hundreds of eggs before collapsing exhausted and dying. The eggs hatch into young tick larvae, and the life cycle starts again.
Ticks are fascinating creatures. They can pass on blood-borne diseases, because they suck blood from one animal and them move on to another. Such diseases are common in cattle and sheep, but less significant in dogs and cats. There is one important condition – Lyme Disease – carried by ticks, which can infect humans as well as dogs. This can cause vague signs at first, and if not diagnosed and treated, can cause serious illness in both species. This is one of the main reasons why people need to take ticks seriously, and why it’s worth preventing ticks using modern medication.
As a vet in practice, I see ticks most often when an owner comes in to me complaining of the sudden appearance of a “small tumour” on their pet. Swollen ticks can look like warts. However, close examination, using a magnifying glass if needed, reveals the tick’s tiny bristle-like legs sticking out at the base of the “tumour”.
Once you have recognised that your pet has a tick, what do you do? Ticks often irritate dogs and cats, and it’s best to remove them. My personal preferred technique is to pull them out, using a proprietary tick removing tool, called an “O’Tom Tick Remover”. Wear gloves, dispose of the tick properly (in a fire, or by squashing and putting in the bin), and wash your hands afterwards.
If the head of the tick breaks off as the tick is pulled out (and this can happen very easily if you just pull them out with your fingers), an abscess can form. This can look red and swollen at first, and can develop into a large lump later. Any such reactions should be bathed twice daily in mildly salty warm water. If they don’t settle down within a few days, you may need to visit your vet for further treatment.
If you want to protect your pet from ticks, there are various options available from your vet. For dogs, the most effective preventive method is a new tablet which just needs to be given every three months: it’s highly effective, and it also prevents fleas and some mites. Sprays and ‘spot on drops’ are also available. It’s best to talk to your vet to find out which method is most appropriate for your pet’s situation.
For further information on the product for ticks, marketed by MSD Animal Health, please click here.