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Tick-borne diseases: a real threat to dogs, cats and pet owners

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Tick-borne diseases in dogs and cats – what exactly are the risks for our pets and for us?
Ticks are parasites that feed on warm-blooded mammals, including dogs, cats and, potentially, us.
These parasites latch onto the skin and suck blood, dropping off once they’ve finished feeding, although this can take days.
Tick bites themselves can be irritating but they can also transmit infectious disease, including the headline-grabbing Lyme disease (or borreliosis), babesiosis, canine ehrlichiosis, and tick-borne encephalitis.
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Dog standing in tall grass, at risk of catching a tick-borne disease

Ticks aren’t too choosy about their hosts; the common UK tick will quite happily bite a dog, a cat or even you. Read on to discover the risks to you and your pets so you can help to keep your household healthy.

Which tick-borne diseases in dogs should owners be aware of?

If your dog is bitten by an infected tick, they could be at risk of a number of diseases. Each of these has different symptoms:

  • Lyme disease

Carried by the sheep tick (scientifically known as Ixodes ricinus), the most common tick in the UK, Lyme disease is caused by the spirochete bacteria, called Borrelia. Acute symptoms in dogs include fever, intermittent lameness, swollen or painful joints, tiredness, and swollen lymph nodes. But signs of illness may only appear two to six months after a tick bite.

  • Babesiosis

Babesiosis is another tick-borne disease to be wary of. It’s rare in the UK, but outbreaks have been reported in UK dogs that haven’t left the country, and the disease can be fatal. This parasite invades the dog’s red blood cells, causing severe anaemia. Symptoms of babesiosis in dogs include weakness, lethargy, pale gums, red urine, yellowing skin and fever.

  • Ehrlichiosis

This is a tick-borne infection of dogs that affects the white blood cells. Cases in the UK are rare and, of those that do occur, most are the result of travel overseas. Symptoms vary and can include fever, weight loss, nose bleeds, and swollen lymph nodes, among others.

  • Encephalitis

Tick-borne encephalitis is a virus spread by ticks that is very rare in the UK, but can be encountered more commonly elsewhere in Europe and Asia, and can affect dogs and people. Encephalitis symptoms in dogs include fever, convulsions and paralysis.

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Cat exploring the outdoors in tall grass where ticks could be waiting to bite
What about tick-borne diseases in cats?

Tick-borne diseases in cats are much less common. Ehrlichiosis and babesiosis are extremely rare in cats, and while cats can carry Lyme disease, they are not known to show any symptoms. However, it is still important to watch out for tick bites as they can get infected and cause other health problems for your cat.

  • Mycoplasma infection

The most common disease in cats resulting from an infected tick bite, Mycoplasma is a red blood cell parasite that can cause severe anaemia. Fleas and ticks carry it once they’ve fed on an infected animal, then pass it on to cats when they bite or attach themselves. Cats can also spread it to each other through biting and mother cats can infect their kittens via the placenta.

  • Lyme disease

Infection in cats across Europe is thought to be low. While cats don’t show any symptoms, they can act as carriers, exposing other potential hosts, such as dogs or humans, to infected ticks and the disease.

Can pet owners get diseases from ticks?

In short, yes. While dogs and cats don’t directly infect humans, they can bring disease-carrying ticks into contact with you and your loved ones. Ticks will bite and feed on humans, passing on certain infections, such as Lyme disease.

If you notice a tick attached to you, you should remove it immediately using a special tick removal tool. Don’t try to use your hands or tweezers as the tick could break apart, leaving parts of it behind causing an infection. If you start to experience flu-like symptoms, a rash or the bite becomes infected, you should speak to your doctor urgently.

  • Lyme disease

Humans and pets are at risk of Lyme disease. Symptoms in humans include a distinctive ‘bullseye’ rash up to six inches wide around the bite, along with tiredness, fever, muscle and joint pain, neck pain and headaches. Left untreated, the disease can lead to serious problems including paralysis and meningitis. Cases of Lyme disease in the UK in people may be three times higher than previous estimates, with new research showing this has increased to over 7,000 cases per year2.

If you are walking in areas where there are likely to be ticks, for example woodland and heath areas, try to stick to the middle of footpaths and avoid overhanging vegetation. Ticks don’t fly or jump, so you’ll need to make contact with one in order for them to attach to you.

Regularly check your clothing for signs of them and brush ticks off if you spot one. It’s a good idea to also cover your arms and legs with long sleeves and trousers, and boots or wellies are a good defence too. You could also try using an insect repellent before setting off.

How to treat tick-borne diseases

Tick-borne diseases can be difficult to treat and prevention is always better than cure. Early diagnosis and treatment can help you and your pet, so always consult a doctor, if you are concerned about a member of your family, or contact your vet if you’re worried about your pet.

Antibiotics are often used to treat tick-borne diseases, but treatment does not always completely clear the infection and dogs can often be carriers even after treatment. Always follow the advice recommended by your doctor or vet.

Preventing tick-borne diseases

The best way to help protect your pets from these diseases is to try to prevent ticks from biting in the first place.

  • Use a tick preventative treatment

All types of dogs can benefit from a tick preventative treatment, as well as cats with a history of tick exposure or those at high risk of infection, such as those who enjoy lots of time outdoors or live in rural areas.

Seresto Flea and Tick Control collar kills fleas and repels and kills ticks without the need for them to bite your pet.1 The collar protects your dog or cat against fleas and ticks for up to eight months in a single application.

  • Check your pet for ticks regularly

While tick season usually lasts from spring to autumn in the UK, in warmer climates tick season can be all-year round. After walking your dog in high-risk areas such as woodland or grassy, shaded areas, always give your dog a thorough check for ticks. You can do this by brushing your fingers through their fur, applying a little pressure so you can feel any small bumps, which could be a tick. If you feel a bump, part the fur so you can inspect it – a tick will look black or dark brown and be between pin-head to grape-sized.

  • Remove any ticks as quickly as possible

If you spot a tick, you need to remove it as quickly as possible using a tick-removal tool. This is a hook that is specifically designed for the task and works by using a ‘twist and pull’ action to remove the tick whole. If you use tweezers, you risk leaving some of its mouthparts behind which can lead to localised infection.

For more help to find ticks read our guides to spotting ticks on  dogs  and cats.

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Vet removing tick from dog’s head with tick-removal tool
  • Check with your vet

Tick-borne diseases can be difficult to spot as the symptoms can be vague. If your dog is showing signs of illness and they have been bitten by a tick, it’s a good idea to speak to your vet. 

  • Be aware of tick diseases abroad

Ticks in the UK can cause disease, but if you’re planning on travelling abroad with your dog, they may be exposed to diseases not found in the UK. Speak to your vet for advice before you travel.

Did you know…?

American band Deer Tick came up with their name when frontman John McCauley found a deer tick, also known as a black-legged tick – which can transmit Lyme Disease in America – on his scalp after a day’s hiking. Luckily, he escaped without Lyme disease, which is a less catchy name for a band.

References:

1 Information is regarding mode of action and is not intended to imply parasites can be completely stopped from biting

2 Cairns V, Wallenhorst C, Rietbrock S, et al. Incidence of Lyme disease in the UK: a population-based cohort study BMJ open 2019;9:e025916

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Dog standing in tall grass, at risk of catching a tick-borne disease