by Trevor Morgan
There has been a lot of news lately about ticks. It has been claimed that 1 in 3 dogs attending veterinary surgeries are carrying a tick. Ticks are related to spiders and these arachnids can give a bite which usually goes un-noticed by the host animal. The tick then engorges itself with blood and when fully fed it falls off the host to lay eggs.
Nymphs emerge from the eggs and these nymphs feed on birds or mammals to eventually become an adult. The female adult tick then climbs onto a suitable plant such as tall grass to await for a passing mammal or bird to brush against it. It then climbs onto the animal host to find a suitable soft spot on the host’s skin where it can insert its mouth parts and begin to suck blood. Ticks are obligate feeders on blood so they are hematophages.
Ticks are becoming more common in Britain owing to warmer and more humid weather. Ticks are not just confined to wilder areas as they have spread to our parks and gardens.
Just as tick can suck the blood of a dog they can also infest humans and feed on our blood.
So why is there all the concern? Ticks can spread Lyme disease to both dogs and humans by infecting their host with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Lyme disease could be fatal if not treated early and if it does not kill you it can cause serious symptoms ranging from inflamed joints, long term weakness and fever. Apparently dogs have greater immunity to this bacterium than humans. But dogs can become infected with Babesia canis which causes a disease called Babesiosis, which is just as serious for the dog as Lyme disease.
The BBC has recently shewn a piece on their news programmes about ticks. Chris Packham emphasised the need to examine your dogs for ticks after you have walked them. Mr Packham also made the point that ticks have spread to urban gardens.
I thought that the BBC was possibly exaggerating the point until I noticed a small grey growth on the cat’s ear. I thought that it might be a small abscess which would eventually heal itself and thought no more about it. The next day the “abscess” had grown considerably and I became concerned. My wife suggested that it might be a tick; she was right, the swelling had grown to about half a centimetre long. It was a tick and it was engorged with blood, its mouth parts and legs were dark brown but its engorged body was grey. The cat had no real idea that the tick was there. I removed the tick with the tines of a flea comb and being sure to pull it out without leaving the mouth parts in the cat’s ear.
The tick itself was still alive and running about over the flea comb. I had never seen a tick before and it out witted me as it fell off the comb onto the cat. It quickly started to bury itself into the fur of the cat and I had to use the flea comb to catch it before it did any more damage. Luckily, I had not squeezed the tick so that the blood that it had ingested was not delivered back into the cat to infect it further with bacteria.
I delivered the “coup de grâce” to the tick with some boiling water. The cat did not appreciate having its ear wiped with surgical spirit but it did not seem to be any the worse for wear from the bite, but there was a tiny bald patch where the tick had drawn blood. A few weeks later there is no sign that the cat is suffering from either Lyme disease or Babesiosis which cats can catch too.
The cat never wanders as far as Darrick Wood, which is a walk of 5 minutes from us, so he must have acquired the tick in our garden or a neighbour’s. This means that it is right for Chris Packham and the BBC to warn us. We need to examine our dogs, cats and other mammalian pets regularly to ensure that they are not infested with ticks.
Equally, we now need to be aware that a tick could infest us anywhere where there is vegetation and that includes Darrick Wood or even the garden.
Foxes can be infested with ticks but they are not the only hosts. Dogs and cats, rats, mice, hedgehogs, badgers, and birds are just as likely to be the hosts that carry ticks to your garden. In the countryside sheep, deer species and wild rabbits are just as likely to be hosts as well.
Lyme disease is on the increase in the UK and the public health authorities are now reporting 3,000 cases per year: 10% of these cases lead to very serious symptoms but there are few fatalities that have been recorded in the UK. Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose and some mild cases go unreported. Most ticks are not infected with Lyme disease so you will be unlikely and unlucky to develop symptoms if bitten. Not that this any consolation for those who have caught the disease.
It really is worth reading the websites below to assess the risks and how to look for the symptoms of Lyme disease. The disease is readily treatable if caught early.
With changing weather patterns and warmer and milder winters, we are probably going to see a considerable increase of Lyme disease in both ourselves and our pets. This is why I have bought 2 tick removal tools from the vet – 1 for the cat and 1 for the humans.
To put the risk into perspective, however, it should be noted that about 6,000 people die every year from accidents in the home. Every year 2 million children, under the age of 15, have accidents in their home which result in a visit to hospital. Statistically speaking, you are far safer going for a walk with the dog in Darrick Wood to run the gauntlet of the ticks than staying at home to fall off a ladder when decorating: Happy Walking.