What are ticks?

Ticks rank second only to mosquitoes in infectious disease spread to both pets and people. Ticks are small creatures that are closely related to spiders and can be predominantly found lurking in grassy areas, such as fields and meadows.

Why are ticks a risk to dog health?

Ticks are parasites and so always require a host to feed from, but also to provide somewhere to find a mate for breeding too. Ticks can also pick up disease from one mammalian host and then pass it onto another (including humans), resulting in a serious risk of disease spread.

What do ticks look like?

Varying in shape, colour and size, ticks are generally oval, flat and small: the size of a sesame seed when unfed, but once completely engorged with blood, they grow to the size and shape of a coffee bean. They look for hosts to latch onto, often by climbing to the top of a long blade of grass and waiting (a behaviour known as 'questing') for passing mammalian traffic, i.e. a sheep, cat, hedgehog, dog, or even you!

What effects do ticks cause?

Ticks aren't just pests that feast on your dog and cause them to itch; they can also be carriers of some serious diseases. UK ticks can carry a devastating condition called lyme disease, caused by serious bacteria, which affects both muscle and nerve cells.

How can I tell if my dog has ticks?

After taking your dog for a walk, it’s a good idea to check them for ticks. You can do this by moving your hands over their body to check for any unusual small bumps, particularly around their:

  • Ears
  • Head
  • Neck
  • Groin
  • Armpits
  • Feet

Ticks vary in size, but you should be able to see their oval-shaped body, which will get bigger as it fills with blood. Ticks may go inside a dog’s ear, so if your dog is shaking their head a lot, it’s worth having a careful look inside with a torch.

What are the signs of lyme disease?

If incorrectly diagnosed, and even left untreated, lyme disease can result in an extremely serious debilitating chronic illness with lifelong complications. While the number of human cases of lyme disease is rising, unfortunately it's still a difficult disease to diagnose in dogs, so prevention against ticks is of vital importance. Typically, dogs may show:

  • An initial 'bullseye' rash around the tick bite site
  • Intermittent lameness
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Headaches have been reported in humans

When are ticks active?

Ticks are commonly more active in open (as well as woodland and urban) areas in spring and autumn. Don't be fooled into thinking they're just a warm weather problem; they can, in fact, be found in your dog's environment throughout the year.

Ticks abroad

These days, it's not just on local walks that you need to be aware of the presence of ticks. Foreign ticks, such as the exotic brown dog (or kennel) tick have been found on recently travelled dogs in the UK. With a 75% increase in pet movement into the UK, it's now more important than ever to protect your pet against the risk of ticks.

How can I prevent my dog from getting ticks?

There are many safe products on the market to prevent ticks: from spot-ons and sprays, to special collars impregnated with substances that infiltrate into the fatty layer in your dog's skin, killing ticks when they attempt to feed and get their first mouthful of anti-parasitically treated blood.

Always check for ticks after country walks

Humans out and about enjoying countryside walks should always tuck trousers into socks to help prevent ticks directly latching onto skin, and on returning home, especially from areas such as parks and woodlands, check all over yourself and your pet's body for signs of any visitors.

What do I do if I find a tick on my dog?

Ticks can be dangerous for any age of dog and indeed any breed (although long-haired breeds are probably more susceptible to picking them up) so it's important to know what to do if you spot one. To find out more about ticks, how to identify them, prevent or remove them, please contact your vet as a matter of importance for your dog's welfare and public health too.

What not to do

Importantly, please don't panic and resist the urge to just pull it straight off. This would be extremely painful for your dog. Ticks always need to be removed slowly and carefully, otherwise embedded mouth parts can be left behind.

If stressed, ticks may regurgitate their bloody meal back into their host along with any disease they're carrying, thereby increasing the chances of disease transmission. You should never:

  • Poke or prod them
  • Burn them with a flame
  • Cover them in Vaseline to suffocate them

The dangers of incorrectly removing a tick

If found on your dog, ticks must be removed; however, if done incorrectly, mouth parts left inside your dog could result in a local tissue reaction, inflammation and infection often requiring antibiotics, or even surgical removal. Therefore you may wish to speak to your vet about techniques on how to remove them effectively.

10 tips for avoiding ticks for you and your pet

  1. When out walking, use suitable clothing: wearing shorts in tick habitat is an invitation to be bitten!
  2. Insect repellents can be sprayed on clothing, but always follow the manufacturer's guidelines
  3. Carry a tick removal tool and antiseptic wipes
  4. Walk in the centre of paths and avoid over-hanging vegetation at the edge of paths where ticks may be waiting
  5. Have a 'tick buddy' to help you check your body and be your dog's 'tick buddy'
  6. Deter ticks from gardens: keep leaf litter to a minimum, grass short, vegetation cut back, and seating and play equipment away from borders, trees and bird feeders
  7. Keep pets tick free using tick-control products
  8. Treat pet accessories with repellents too
  9. Groom pets thoroughly: make sure you brush against, as well as with, the hair growth to see any embedded ticks. Check inside the ears, around the eyes, on the chin and around the muzzle, as well as between pads and toes
  10. Don't bring ticks home: take off outer clothes before going indoors. Tests have demonstrated that ticks can survive a full cycle in the washing machine and short periods in a dryer

Article author

This article was written by Marc Abraham, a vet based in Brighton who regularly appears on UK television.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!

We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.

Find a vet near you

If you're looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a vet page.