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Ticks: What You Should Know

Helen was a nurse and care staff trainer for 25 years. She now works with Fife Cultural Trust.

Sheep Tick (Ixodus ricinus)

Sheep Tick (Ixodus ricinus)

What Are Ticks?

When you see a tick you might find it hard to decide exactly what you are looking at. Is it a beetle? Is it some kind of bug? In fact, ticks belong to a group of animals called the arachnids—the same group that spiders and scorpions belong to.

Arachnids are basically defined as follows:

  • There are two distinct parts to the body—the top part including the head, called the cephalothorax, and the lower area that is the abdomen.
  • Arachnids don't have antennae or wings.
  • They have very simple eyes that can, however, take in a lot of detail.
  • They have two chelicerae, better known as fangs, and two other appendages called pedipalps that have various functions depending on the specific species of arachnid.
  • The last set of appendages—there are four of them—are used for sensing, touching and grasping.
  • Ticks have distinct life stages ranging within a period of around one to three years. The stages are larval, nymph and adult. It is in the larval and nymph stages that ticks are most likely to transmit disease.
This is the type of landscape that ticks enjoy - unfortunately so do we!

This is the type of landscape that ticks enjoy - unfortunately so do we!

Blood-Sucking Pests

Basically ticks are blood suckers—they have no food source other than the blood of the animals they feed on.

Many animals in the UK—and around the world—carry ticks; the species of tick depends on the animal type and geographical location.

Not all ticks carry the most famous disease they are associated with, Lyme Disease—and only about 15% are thought to be infected. Its more common for the deer tick—also known as the sheep or castor bean tick—to be affected with Lyme Disease. It's important to note, though, that ticks themselves do not produce disease but only become affected when they drink the blood of an infected animal.

Surveys carried out in a number of countries such as the UK—UK, Tick Awareness; The British BDS (British Deer Society); The UK Vet CPD (UK Vet Continual Professional Development); and the Centre for Disease Control & Infection, Georgia (CDC), USA—all believe that tick numbers are on the increase. Although there is speculation that global warming is causing this expansion in tick numbers, scientists such as Professor Matthias Leu, of William and Mary College Virginia, feel the spread of ticks is due to escalating number of deer and other mammals:

"What does influence the tick population is the amount of deer and mice available to serve as hosts for the ticks." (Professor Matthias Leu; Source, Washington Post, 2019.)

Of course, with the increase in ticks, the number of people and pets affected escalates.

Tick engorged with blood. The photographer took this tick off his pet cat.

Tick engorged with blood. The photographer took this tick off his pet cat.

A tick I found on one of my dogs before it attached and became engorged with blood.

A tick I found on one of my dogs before it attached and became engorged with blood.

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Borrelia burgdorferi one of the bacteria species responsible for Lyme's Disease.

Borrelia burgdorferi one of the bacteria species responsible for Lyme's Disease.

Removing Ticks Safely

Disease is not the only threat from ticks; failure to remove them properly either from your pet or a person can be dangerous. The reason for this is that it can be very easy to leave the head, or more commonly the mandibles of the tick embedded in the skin.

Removing them incorrectly can also cause the tick to vomit up infected fluid into the wound site. If people grab and pull them the wrong way the abdomen becomes separated from the head and as previously mentioned the head can remain stuck into the skin, potentially causing serious infections.

If using the 'tick twister' tool, simply follow the instructions on the leaflet. Please note, however, that if you are using ordinary tweezers to remove a tick, gently pull upwards, but do not twist as you would do with the 'tick twister'. If you have never removed a tick before, then either get your vet to demonstrate the technique or watch one of the professional videos on sites such as YouTube. Once the tick has been removed, wipe the area of skin with antiseptic.

When you have removed the tick, and if it is engorged and has been drinking blood, do not squeeze or crush the tick as the blood may splatter out onto your skin and any infection with it. Wrap it in toilet paper and flush it down the toilet or wrap it in sticky tape and put it in the bucket. If you can, wear gloves while doing this and also wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Clean any tools used with antiseptic,.

People have tried other ways to remove ticks such as Vaseline, nail polish, alcohol etc. This is not recommended as these chemicals can cause the tick to vomit up blood and fluids back into the wound it's attached to. Any parasites or infection will also be vomited back into the site.


Some of the Diseases That Ticks Carry

Ticks are found all over the world, as are the diseases they carry. Here are just a few of the most common:

Many of these diseases affect both people and pets.

  • Lyme disease. A disease caused by bacteria carried by infected ticks. This disease can affect both humans and pets.
  • Tick-borne encephalitis. This infection has now been located in the UK and is already prevalent in Scandinavia, mainland Europe, North America and Asia.
  • Ehrlichiosis. This is a disease affecting the white blood cells caused by a bacteria called Rickettsia which is carried by infected ticks. It's still quite rare in the UK, but more prevalent in Europe, North America and Africa.
  • Babiosis is a malaria-like illness that is spread by ticks that carry the parasite babesia. This illness is most common in certain areas of Europe and in some areas of the USA. This disease affects both humans and pets, especially dogs.
  • Louping ill virus (LIV). This is a virus that it is endemic in the UK. and affects, sheep, cattle and grouse as well as other animals, this virus can develop into a fatal form of enchephalitis.
  • Ticks can be dangerous in other ways. For example pets and people can have an allergic reaction to tick saliva. One of my Border Collies I had was prone to getting huge swellings at the site of any tick bite and we are sure that such a reaction may have contributed to his eventual death—septicaemia. I have had a number of dogs over the years and this Border Collie, Roy, was the only one to get affected in this way. However, it demonstrates just how dangerous these parasites can be.

The best defence against ticks is to be aware, knowledgeable and take appropriate risk-reducing steps as far as you can.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Helen Murphy Howell

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