Tick talk…

…time to protect your pets

If you spend any time in the great outdoors, walking, camping, rambling, gardening, farming or you have pets that go outdoors, you need to have some awareness of ticks and how they may pose a danger to you and your pets.

According to http://Wikipedia.org/ , ticks are small arachnids in the order Parasitiformes. Ticks, along with mites constitute the subclass Accrinia. They are ectoparasites that live on the outside of their mammal hosts, feeding on blood. According to Furman and Lewis (1984) who provided a comprehensive study of ticks in California, they are among the most important ectoparasites affecting the health of man and domestic and wild animals. They serve as reservoirs and vectors of many organisms pathogenic for humans and other animals, and cause direct harm by their bites, including irritation, anemia, toxemia, allergic sensitisation, and paralysis.

There are approximately 850 species of tick throughout the world. Scientists have classified them into two families, based on their structure of hard (Ixodidae) or soft

(Argasidae) outer covering. A third family, the Nutalliellidae are known only from a single African species.


These have a hard outer covering called a scutum. All ticks have three pairs of legs in their immature stage and four pairs as an adult. They cannot fly but crawl towards their food source which they detect through sensory apparatus called ‘Haller’s Organ’ which locates odour, heat and humidity. They climb up on tall grass and when they sense an animal is close by they crawl on to it. Geographic distribution of Ixodidae depends on various factors, including temperature, humidity, vegetation and host density (Estrada-Pena 2001). (http://www.researchgate.net/publication/11828266_Forecasting_habitat_suitability_for_ticks_and_prevention_of_tick-borne_diseases ).

Life Cycle

All ticks have four stages to their life cycle: egg, larvae, nymph and adult.

Spring: Adult lays eggs on the ground.

Summer: (Depending on temperature and moisture) Eggs hatch into larvae. The larvae find their first host; usually small bird or rodent. They feed off their host for several days, then detach and fall onto the ground.

Autumn: The well fed larvae now molt into the next cycle and are called nymphs.

Winter: The nymphs remain inactive during the winter months.

Spring: The nymphs become more active and find their second host (usually a rodent, pet or human) and feed again

Once the nymph is well fed it detaches and falls to the ground where it molts and changes into an adult.

Autumn: During the Autumn months the male and female adults find another host (usually a rodent, deer, pet or human and feed and mate, falling back on to the ground. The male tick now dies and the female lives on, laying eggs in the Spring. On average, each female tick lays approximately 3000 eggs.

Before feeding, ticks that infest pets are very small, typically less than 1mm. Nymphs are 1-2mm long and adults 3-5mm. Engorged adults however can be up to 2cm long and 50-100 times larger than when unfed!

Engorged tick

Tick borne diseases.

Tick borne illnesses are caused by infection with a variety of pathogens.

Apparently, dogs are more likely to be affected by ticks than cats,the rationale being that dogs are more likely to get into ‘tick territory’. For pet owners like me that regularly find ticks on my dog and cats it is not necessary to know the particular species of tick, only how to remove them safely. Tick bites are not usually painful to the pet because of the natural painkillers introduced during the biting process. This supposedly increases the risk of the tick avoiding detection during the day long feeding process. The blood loss incurred from a few ticks is irrelevant but if a pet is bitten by hundreds, blood loss can lead to anaemia.

If you notice your dog or cat scratching more than usual, it is more likely to be fleas than ticks

Because of the grooming habits of cats, they are more likely to dislodge ticks than dogs.

Major threats for pets

Almost all tick species transmit one or more tick borne diseases which alter by region. Most vets will be aware of local risks and if presented with a dog or cat that has been bitten by ticks and infection is suspected, they will be able to initiate appropriate treatment. It has to be said that it is mainly dogs that are at risk but cats can also fall victim.


Heyman et al (2010) discuss the dangers presenting to both humans and animals from tick borne infections in Europe:

Animal symptoms of these disease are often unspecific and early diagnosis of infection is not always easy to make. It is not uncommon for diagnosis to be too late to save a pet and it is therefore important to ensure that they receive appropriate and timely preventive treatment.


There are chemical pesticides that, applied periodically, keep pets free of ticks. Repellents do not kill ticks but keep them away from potential hosts. Their efficacy is reported as being very weak, lasting a few days, if at all.

Some people advocate the use of home made natural remedies against ticks found on cats and dogs. They are certainly not as efficient as the currently available synthetic pesticides but they are reported to bring only partial relief for a few hours. I have heard of citronella oil, lavendar, rosemary, lemon balm and tea tree oil being used but I have personally been reluctant to go down this path given the lack of evidence regarding their safety. There certainly has to be a balance between potency and safety in their dilution. I would never use a pure oil. Natural does not necessarily mean safe.


There are basically three types of products containing tickisides for pets. They are all for external use only and include:

Spot ons: for monthly administration

Tickiside impregnated collars

Shampoos, sprays, lotions, powders (the low cost alternatives). These products should be used to treat the whole body of the pet, not just the area where adult ticks have been seen. This is because the immature ticks (nymphs, larvae) can’t always be seen with the naked eye.

The spot ons and collars are often able to target parasites other than ticks, including fleas and worms. To me, it makes sense to select these types of products, particularly if your pet is not strictly a house pet.

Removal of ticks

To inspect a pet for attached ticks, carefully and thoroughly feel the body surface for any lumps under the hair. It’s important to pay close attention to areas around the face, ears and eyes. There are conflicting thoughts on how ticks should be removed from either pets or humans. Some people advocate spreading oil, butter, petrol, alcohol or even tea tree oil over the tick and wait until it detaches. I prefer to remove them using tweezers. I grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull firmly. After I have removed the tick, I check to ensure the head and body are intact. If the mouth parts are left in the animal they can cause abscess but they usually slough out, just like a splinter. Clean the detachment site after removal of the tick with soap and water and similarly ensure the tweezers are washed, dried and disinfected with a chlorine solution after use. Ensure the tick is destroyed either in an organic solvent such as alcohol or place it in tissue and kill using a hammer or some other heavy device to ensure the outer casing is breached and the tick destroyed.


Furman and Lewis (1984)

Low Gillard P (2012) How to pick your way through the jungle of ectoparastic treatments for dogs and cats Companion 2012 pp 14-18





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