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Big Tick Project

16 June 2016

Ticks ingest blood from hosts such as dogs, humans, deer and other animals.


Ticks are blood sucking parasites that are classified as Arachnida (a classification that includes spiders). They are thought to have been around for at least 90 million years. There are many different species but only a few are thought to transmit disease.

Ticks ingest blood from hosts such as dogs, humans, deer and other animals. Most will go through four life stages, egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Each stage requires a blood meal to survive feeding on different hosts at different stages. Some ticks may take up to three years to complete their full life cycle and many will die if they don’t find the next host to feed from. Ticks find their host by detecting breath, odor or sensing body heat, moisture or vibration from their host. Ticks cannot jump. They wait on the tips of grasses and shrubs in a position known as ‘questing’ with their first pair of legs outstretched waiting to climb onto the host. Some will then work their way towards the ear where the skin is thinner, others will attach straight away. The tick inserts a feeding tube with barbs through the skin as well as special cement, tick saliva contains anaesthetic so the animal will not detect it feeding. Ticks are often picked up in long grass and can commonly be found on the face or front legs. The tick will feed for several days, then fall off and complete the next stage of the life cycle. Transmission of disease from the tick to the host and vice versa occurs via the ticks saliva, often once the tick is full of blood.

A study at the University of Bristol hopes to collect ticks from dogs in order to track the incidence of disease carried by ticks such as Lyme disease (a spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi). Lyme disease can affect both dogs and humans and can be contracted when infected ticks feed. The incidence of Lyme disease in dogs is largely unknown, however it is known that dogs across the country have tested positive for antibodies for Lyme, particularly in rural areas. Thankfully however, despite having a positive antibody test, relatively few dogs will go on to develop clinical signs, perhaps only 5-10 per cent. A higher proportion of people however with a positive titre will go onto develop symptoms, approximately 90%. It is thought that Lyme disease in humans is on the increase.

Lyme disease is not commonly diagnosed in dogs but can cause lethargy, fever, lameness, heart and kidney disease. In humans it may cause a rash, flu like symptoms and can eventually cause problems with the joints, heart and nervous system.

Public Health England estimates the number of new cases of Lyme disease at around 3,000 a year in humans, but the Lyme disease charity say the figure could be far higher at up to 15,000.

Ticks are most active in spring and early summer. Ticks collected by vets will be sent to Professor Richard Wall and his colleagues at Bristol University to examine them for evidence of disease.

Increasing pet travel to parts of Europe also poses a risk for the introduction of diseases such as babesia and ehrlichia not currently thought to be endemic in the UK. Climate change, host abundance and other factors are thought to have increased the distribution of ticks with warmer, wetter winters and milder, wetter summers allowing the seasonal tick activity to be extended.

There are many options available to protect your dog against tick exposure, including 4 weekly spot ons, sprays or collars and oral medication. Tick hooks can also be used to remove ticks. Some products are not safe to be used in households with cats. If your dog is at risk of getting ticks then contact your vet for more advice. Tick treatment is no longer required as part of re-entry to the UK under the passport scheme, but tick protection is strongly recommended when taking your pet abroad.


For further information see our:

Ectoparasites (fleas and other skin parasites) in Dogs Information Sheet

Ectoparasites (fleas and other skin parasites) in Cats Information Sheet

Parasites in Rabbits Information Sheet