Ticks on dogs. How to prevent and get rid of ticks on dogs
Ticks are small biting parasites second only to mosquitoes in spreading infectious diseases to both pets and people. There are several species in the UK, and their numbers are rising.
- Ticks are small parasites that can spread diseases to both pets and humans, and their numbers are increasing in the UK
- Dog ticks are biting parasites that attach themselves to dogs by biting into the skin and feeding on blood
- Ticks are commonly found in fields or woodland areas, particularly in grassy and wooded areas in southern and northern England and the Scottish Highlands
- Tick species vary in size, shape, and color, but they generally look like small spiders before feeding and can grow larger and darker in color after feeding
- Ticks can transmit diseases such as Lyme disease, Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, and tick-borne Encephalitis, which can have serious consequences if not diagnosed and treated
Ticks on dogs. What are they?
Dog ticks are tiny, biting parasites that belong to the same family as spiders, scorpions and dog mites. Often mistaken for insects, the adults have eight legs and latch onto dogs by biting into the skin. From here, they insert a feeding tube and suck up blood to feed on. This tube can have barbs that help them stay attached while your dog moves around.
Where are ticks found?
Usually found in fields or woodland areas, ticks lurk in long grass, waiting to climb or drop onto your dog. They need a host to feed from and to provide somewhere to find a mate for breeding. They can transmit disease from one host to another, which makes them particularly efficient at spreading disease.
Unlike fleas, ticks can't jump, but they can crawl large distances (relative to their body size) to find a meal. They will most likely be on tall grass waiting for your dog to bound past. As soon as they feel this motion, they quickly let go of their perch and climb onto your dog.
While ticks are found throughout the UK, they're more common in grassy and wooded areas in southern and northern England and the Scottish Highlands.
Dog ticks can vary in size, shape and colour, but there are some similarities between all tick species. Before they have had a chance to feed, they look like small spiders and are usually grey, dark brown or black, and may resemble a sesame seed. Before feeding, they are very small - only a few millimetres long. Once they begin to feed, they can become engorged, increasing in size to around a centimetre and becoming darker in colour. They can then look like a coffee bean, a red seed or a large grain of rice.
They can sometimes be confused for your dog's nipples or skin tags, but if you look closely, you might be able to see their legs
They usually like to feed where the skin is thin and in warm crevices. Common sites to find ticks on dogs include the head, neck, belly and feet.
Have there been any studies into ticks on dogs?
There have been lots. One study in 2018 looked at the amount of disease-causing pathogens carried by ticks found on dogs and cats in various European countries. They discovered that a significant number of ticks found on dogs and cats carried dangerous germs, like Anaplasma, Borrelia, Babesia, Hepatozoon, and Rickettsia. The researchers suggested that vets check dogs and cats for diseases that ticks can pass on. They also said pet owners should do their best to stop their pets from getting bitten by ticks. This could involve joining the Pet Health Club and receiving comprehensive tick treatment.
Researchers in the UK carried out the largest-ever study of ticks on dogs in 2015. Before it, almost half of pet owners didn't know that ticks can spread diseases to humans too. After the study, a lot more people became aware of these risks. Prof Richard Wall started this study because he was worried about the growing number of ticks. The research team found that almost one-third of dogs in the study had ticks, and diseases from ticks could be found nationwide. There was also a noticeable increase in Lyme disease cases.
In a similar US study, researchers found that the number of ticks on dogs varied depending on the location, time of year, and the pet's activity level. However, the average dog had 6.7 ticks, and dogs were likelier to be infested with ticks than cats. The most common attachment areas for ticks on dogs were the head, neck, and back.
Lyme disease is a bacterial disease spread by infected ticks. The bacteria enter the bloodstream as the tick feed and then spread throughout the body, including to the joints and kidneys. It affects many mammals, including dogs, cats and humans. It's spread by ticks from smaller animals (birds, mice, hedgehogs) to larger mammals. When a tick ingests the blood of an affected animal, it becomes a carrier of the disease and passes it on to its next host.
Symptoms of Lyme disease
Lyme disease symptoms can be difficult to spot, as they are often vague and may be delayed for months after infection. Common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are:
- Swelling of the area where they've been bitten
- Large lymph nodes
- Swelling of the joints and lameness
- A high fever
- Loss of appetite
- Sensitivity to touch
- General weakness or lethargy
Lyme disease can have serious consequences if not diagnosed and treated, including kidney failure, heart and brain conditions.
Diagnosis of Lyme disease
Your vet will diagnose Lyme disease through physical examination, lifestyle history and blood tests. These blood tests should show evidence of the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the cause of Lyme disease.
Treatment of Lyme disease
Because Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics. However, these antibiotics must often be taken for at least 30 days to ensure the disease has been killed. In some cases, lifelong treatment may be needed. Secondary treatment can also be needed to treat some symptoms, such as fluids, pain relief and specific diets.
Babesiosis is a disease spread by ticks infected with the parasite Babesia. This parasite grows and reproduces inside the red blood cells, which causes them to rupture. This can lead to anaemia (a deficiency of red blood cells of haemoglobin), jaundice and other symptoms.
Symptoms of babesiosis
Symptoms of babesiosis in your dog can vary from case to case. Some dogs may show no signs, and others may suffer severe complications. Symptoms you should look for may include:
- A high fever
- Lethargy or general weakness
- Enlarged lumps on the skin
- Red or orange urine
- A yellow tinge to your dog's skin, gums or the whites of their eyes (Jaundice)
- Pale gums/tongue
Complications may include:
- Very low blood pressure
- Liver damage
- Kidney failure
- Heart failure
Diagnosis of babesiosis
Your vet may diagnose babesiosis in your dog using a PCR test. This polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is used to find specific genetic material from the parasite in your dog's blood.
Treatment of babesiosis
If your dog has babesiosis, they'll be treated with antibiotics to kill the infection. Other secondary treatments, such as blood transfusions and fluids, may also be needed to help manage the symptoms and support recovery.
Anaplasmosis is a tick-borne disease caused by the bacteria Anaplasma phagocytophilum. It's been reported worldwide and can infect dogs, cats and foxes, among other animals.
Symptoms of anaplasmosis
Some dogs may be infected with anaplasmosis and not show any symptoms. However, symptoms can include:
Diagnosis of anaplasmosis
Anaplasmosis will usually be detected through blood tests designed to detect antibodies.
Treatment of anaplasmosis
Anaplasmosis is generally treated with antibiotics. Your dog will normally start to feel better after one or two days but will have to take the antibiotics for two weeks to be sure the infection is completely gone.
Tick-borne encephalitis is found mainly in southern Europe and Asia, so ensuring your dog has adequate parasite prevention is essential if you plan to take them abroad.
While it's rare in the UK, cases have been reported, mainly in pets returning from abroad.
Symptoms of encephalitis
- Swelling around the joints
Treatment of encephalitis
If your dog is diagnosed with encephalitis, they'll be treated with antibiotics to kill the infection. Other secondary treatments, such as blood transfusions and fluids, may also be needed to help kill the disease.
Ticks typically take a couple of days to feed and will drop off once they've had their fill. During this time, they could pass a dangerous disease to your dog. Ticks can take up to 48 hours to transmit disease, so early removal is important.
If the tick still has a flat body with a dull colour, then you can assume your dog picked it up on their most recent walk. However, if the tick has a swollen or rounded body which has changed from colour to grey or brown from a brick red, then the chances are they have been feeding for a good while.
Regardless of how long the tick has been on your dog, removing it as quickly as possible is vital.
How to remove ticks from dogs
Any dog that spends time outside is at risk of bringing home ticks. They like to latch on when your dog walks through long grass or woodland, rolls around on the ground or chases a ball into some bushes.
If you find a tick on your dog, it's vital to remove it with care – or ask your vet to do it for you. Removing a tick improperly can do damage; mouthparts can be left behind under the skin, and too much pressure on the tick can cause it to release blood back into your dog, increasing the chance of disease. It's best to use a tick-removal tool, sometimes called a 'tick twister'.
To remove a tick from your dog, follow these steps:
- Ticks resemble little grey or pink blisters, rice grains or a wart. They may even look red if they've begun feeding.
- Give your pet a rub down, paying careful attention to their ears, eyes, armpits and toes after every walk or trip to the garden.
- You'll need to use a tick twister to get rid of the tick. These can be bought online or from your local vet practice.
- Slide the tick twister under the tick with the prongs facing away from you until you feel pressure. Then gently twist the twister, keeping it flat on your dog's body until the tick lets go.
- Dispose of the tick by flushing it down the toilet and wiping down the bite area while telling your dog what a brave animal they've been.
- Treat and reward them to make each tick removal easier than the last.
Routine healthcare plans, like Pet Health Club, offer effective flea, worm and tick treatment products to prevent and kill parasites and protect your pet from conditions such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, lungworm and other parasitic illnesses. Applying preventative treatments regularly will keep your dog tick-free.
Even with the help of anti-tick sprays or collars, inspect your dog's fur thoroughly after a walk – particularly if you've just wandered through a tick-prone area. Be extra vigilant during the warmer months because this is the tick's favourite time of year. Check yourself and your children as well.
Depending on which preventative medication you use, it may take 12 hours or so for the tick to die – this is more than enough time for Lyme disease to spread. Therefore, if you spot a tick on your dog, remove it immediately; follow the instructions in the video below. If you don't feel comfortable doing this, contact your vet as quickly as possible.
When should you visit your vet?
You should quickly remove the tick yourself using our guide. However, if you are having trouble, don't feel up to it the first time, or it is in a difficult-to-reach position, like the inside of the ear, then visit your vet as soon as you can, and they will help remove the tick for you.
Common questions about ticks on dogs
Can I touch a dog with ticks?
You can touch a dog that has a tick, as this is one of the best ways to see if they have been bitten by one. If you see a tick, wearing protective gloves when removing it may be best. Always dispose of the tick safely.
What happens if you squish a tick?
You should never squish a tick. If you squish a tick while it is still attached to your dog, you can push the blood back into your dog's bloodstream. This can lead to infection.
Do dogs feel pain from ticks?
Ticks often don't seem to cause much discomfort for dogs unless in sensitive areas such as between the toes or in the ears. Some dogs may have a mild reaction to the tick bite and have a sore area around the site. The main danger of ticks is their ability to carry disease.
Common myths about ticks
Myth: Ticks are only found in forests or places with many trees.
Truth: Ticks can be found in many settings, including lawns and parks.
Myth: Ticks only come out in the summer.
Truth: Ticks can bite any time of the year, but they're usually busiest between spring and autumn when the weather is warm and damp.
Myth: Ticks are just a problem for dogs and cats.
Truth: Ticks don't discriminate — they can also bite humans and pass on nasty diseases to us, too.
At what stage of their life cycle do ticks bite dogs?
A tick's life has six stages: egg, larva, nymph, and three adult stages (male, female, and engorged female). This process can take one to three years, changing a bit depending on what kind of tick it is and where it lives. Only the adult females pose a threat to dogs (and humans).
Ticks love warm, damp weather, so they're busiest in spring and autumn. The adult females find a host to feed on, like a dog, cat, or even a human, usually by crawling up from the ground. Once they've latched on, they snack on their host's blood for days, even weeks. After feeding, they detach and drop off.
Tick life cycle:
Egg: Female ticks lay 300-500 eggs at a time, and about two weeks later, they hatch.
Larva: The larvae are tiny with six legs. They usually feed on small mites and spiders.
Nymph: Nymphs are a bit bigger than larvae and have eight legs. They feed on larger insects like flies and mosquitoes.
Male: Male ticks are smaller than females and don't feed on blood. Their job is to mate with the females, and then they die.
Female: After gorging on blood, female ticks become up to 10 times their normal size. They then lay their eggs and die.