How to prevent tick bites and Lyme disease in dogs and cats

Spring is nearly here and summer close behind. Apart from wonderful sunny days, relaxing walks in the countryside, fields and forests, there is a hidden danger lurking in these idyllic places for your dogs, cats and yourself.

Dr Margit Gabriele Muller

Ticks are a tiny enemy, just 3-5 mm in size, but can lead to major problems in pets and humans alike, here Dr Margit Gabriele Muller, leading vet and author details…

What is a tick?

Ticks are tiny blood parasites. In the UK and Europe, hard ticks, from the species Ixodes Ricinus, are mainly found. They are brown, black and reddish in colour. They suck blood from their hosts and can range from a pinpoint size up to 3-5mm once they have fully fed on blood. As they have eight legs, ticks belong to the arachnids, the family of spiders. Ticks require a host such as a pet or human to be able to multiply.

Where are ticks found?

Ticks are commonly found in areas with grass, leaf piles, shrubs, underbrush, trees, and in the wilderness. In the UK, ticks are found all over the country, but the high-risk areas include Southern England and the Scottish Highlands.

How do ticks get transmitted?

Ticks are active when the temperatures start to rise. They search for a potential warm-blooded victim as soon as the temperature is above 4ºC. They either lie in wait in grass or leaves to climb up the legs of their victim or fall from branches. They love to bite their host in warm and moist body areas.

Bites are usually painless and therefore often go unnoticed. After ticks bite, they stay attached to the host’s body until they are soaked full in blood. Once they have finished feeding, which might take up to 10 days, the ticks have reached their full size and detach themselves and simply fall off.

How to check for ticks?

It’s essential to check your pet’s skin after outdoor walks. In dogs and cats, it is advisable to run your hands down the pet’s body to see if you can feel small lumps, especially in the neck, ears, head, and feet.

How can you remove ticks?

You can buy special tick removal forceps in veterinary practices or in pet shops. It is important to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and to pull straight upwards. The pressure on the forceps should be distributed evenly without bending, twisting or tearing the tick. Recommended things like putting oil on the tick are not suitable and should not be performed.

After removing the tick, you must check that no parts of the head or mouth are left inside the skin as all parts must be removed completely. The bite must then be cleaned with either disinfectant or soap and water. The tick should be disposed properly by drenching it in alcohol and putting it in a sealed container.

How can ticks be prevented?

In dogs and cats, the best and most effective tick prevention is the year-long monthly treatment with a pipette of a special topical tick and flea prevention treatment. This is administered directly on the skin in the neck area. It is also advisable to avoid high risk areas and to not to go on adventures in deep scrubs and wilderness and to stay in the centre of pathways.

In humans, long sleeves and trousers that cover the arms and legs completely are a good way to avoid any skin contact for the ticks. Insect repellents with at least 20% DEET (diethyltoluamide) that are used on the rest of the visible skin are a good way to deter these blood parasites.

What is Lyme Disease?

Black legged ticks from the species Iodex that are infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi can spread Lyme Disease to humans. Moreover, ticks can also transmit other kind of infectious diseases such as Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis and tularemia to pets and humans alike. Laboratory tests such as blood tests can be used to detect the presence of antibodies to Lyme disease.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease and tick infestation in dogs and cats?

Dogs are more affected than cats. Symptoms usually develop within a week but can sometimes appear even months or years later and often no symptoms appear at all. Symptoms include fever, lack of appetite, tiredness and lameness. The heart, kidneys, joints, and nervous system can also be affected. Although ticks bite as single parasites, if a dog or cat have lots of bites it can possibly lead to anemia. A tick paralysis can also occur which causes wobbling of the legs, heavy breathing, vomiting and salivation.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in humans?

According to Public Health England, a maximum of 10% of ticks carry the bacterium that results in Lyme disease. An estimated 3,000 people contract this infectious disease every year in the UK. The onset of clinical symptoms of Lyme Disease don’t start immediately after being bitten.  Usually, symptoms develop within a week and can even appear after 3 months or more.

The most common symptom is a skin rash which affects 70-80% of patients and other early-stage symptoms can be like flu. Muscle and joint pains can develop or reappear after several months and even years.  Tick allergies and facial nerve paralysis on one or both sides of the face might also occur. If Lyme disease remains undetected for a long period of time, Late Persistent Lyme Disease may occur with serious and permanent nerve and brain damage.

What is the treatment for Lyme disease?

For both humans and pets, Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics that are susceptible to the bacterium. The antibiotic of choice is doxycycline and treatment lasts at least 4 weeks or longer. Supportive treatment for affected organs such as the kidney can be given, too.

Dr Margit Gabriele Muller’s book Your Pet, Your Pill: 101 Inspirational Stories About How Pets Lead You to A Happy, Healthy and Successful Life is now available on Amazon.