Published on January 27th, 2015 | by Debbie Martin0
Understanding tick-borne diseases
Understanding tick-borne diseases, one of the most often-overlooked threats to dogs and cats during spring is that posed by ticks. It’s worth therefore examining exactly what a tick is, how it can harm an animal and how this harm can be prevented.
What is a tick?
A tick is a variety of parasite which attaches itself to the skin of a larger, warm-blooded animal and sucks its blood. Ticks are small enough to go unnoticed – yet not so small that they cannot be seen with the naked eye. However a tick has a naturally occurring local anaesthetic in its salvia, therefore you do not feel it bite.
Unfortunately from the point of view of the host, the presence of ticks causes a number of adverse effects. Most of these effects come in the form of diseases.
What does a tick actually do?
In order to get a better understanding of the threat ticks pose to our pets (and to us), it’s worth understanding exactly how they operate.
Spring is the time when ticks lay their eggs, in clutches of around two-thousand. Immediately after giving birth, a female tick will die.
The eggs will lay dormant for a few months before hatching in early summer, when they will hatch into six-legged larvae. These larvae will then wait until spring of the following year, where they will attempt to find a host. They do this by securing themselves to surfaces an animal is likely to pass by – on the top of a blade of grass is the most common hiding place.
Once they have gotten themselves there, they will begin to feed off an animal’s blood. They do this for around a week before falling back to earth. They then wait until the next spring before moulting into the next phase – they sprout an extra two legs and become nymphs. They then repeat the process, this time for a little longer – around a week and a half. They will then fall to the floor again, and begin the final transformation.
This is the transformation which changes them into an adult tick. This takes them around a month, but they will need to wait for the right conditions before they feed again. They therefore remain inactive until the following spring. It is then that they begin their search again. During this final stage, a female tick will grow up to 10,000% larger. She will then lay a clutch of eggs and the cycle will begin again.
What does all this mean for your pets? In short, the greatest danger occurs during spring and early summer. It is during these months that you should be especially wary of the danger posed to your pets.
Having said that, you should still be wary during autumn and winter – the warm conditions inside a heated house can create the right conditions for ticks to operate outside of their normal cycles. And there are other parasites which pose a threat to your cats and dogs too!
What diseases do ticks cause?
There are a few disease caused by ticks and they all stem from a bacterial infection brought about by the tick feeding. These harmful bacteria have, in the form of a tick, a convenient conduit into an animal’s bloodstream, which contains just the right conditions for it to thrive. Of course, this arrangement is not quite so convenient for the host!
Ticks carry a bacteria which causes Lyme disease, a disease which causes severe discomfort in both animals and humans. Lyme disease will cause an animal’s joints to swell up, leading to difficulty walking. Lameness is therefore one of the most common symptoms of the disease.
Infection usually occurs more than eighteen hours after the tick has first attached itself to the animal’s body. This is why identifying and removing a tick infestation is important in preventing the disease from taking hold.
Since Lyme disease is caused by bacteria, it can be treated with antibiotics, which your vet will prescribe. These will need to be applied for around a month, during which the animal must be kept dry and warm and prevented from moving around too much, as this is likely to further aggravate the joint inflammation.
Ehrlichoisis and Babesiosis
Ehrlichiosis is a disease which affects an animal’s white blood cells. While it is extremely rare in humans, it does occur from time to time in dogs and cats. Fortunately, the diseases is almost entirely absent from the UK – but that does not mean it cannot be brought here from foreign shores.
The bacteria which cause the disease will first infiltrate an animal’s white blood cells, where they will begin to reproduce. The infection will spread through the body, causing the liver and spleen to swell up. The result is a feeling of depression, joint pain, a loss of appetite and lethargy.
Most dogs will be able to fight off the infection on their own. Those that do not will enter the second phase, during which the bacteria will live inside the spleen. This will last for a long time; in some cases months, in other cases years.
Babesiosis, on the other hand, is a disease which affects an animal’s red blood cells. It actually quite similar to malaria – and can be just as fatal. The symptoms and progression of the disease are largely similar to that of Ehlichoisis – and so most afflicted animals can be treated as outbound patients. Some, however, will need to be hospitalised.
You should be on the lookout for symptoms including discoloured urine, lethargy and a lack of appetite. In the even that your pet should display these symptoms, it should be taken to a vet.
How can I protect my pets?
The most effective way to safeguard your pet against these diseases is to prevent them from being bitten in the first place. A tick, while small, should be large enough to be picked up and removed with a pair of tweezers – just make sure that you don’t get bitten yourself! You should periodically inspect both your pet and their sleeping area in order to ensure that they are tick-free. However, the best form of protection is prevention, most good flea spot on treatments treat for ticks, but only for up to 4 weeks, therefore if the animal is particularly prone to getting ticks (i.e. lives near long grassy areas) you should use a preventative treatment every 4 weeks.