Monday 3 November 2008
Peter Heery came into see me with Bryce - a ten year old male cross-bred Springer Spaniel. Bryce had developed lumps on his skin after a recent visit to Donegal.Bryce, along with his owners, had a wonderful holiday in Donegal in October. They were staying with relatives at the edge of Donegal Town, and Bryce enjoyed going for walks in the local rough meadows and fields. He loved charging through long grass and through ditches. Wild hare would appear as he passed close by, and he chased them, although he never caught one. Similarly, grouse and pheasants would spring into the air in front of him, and he would jump after them, again missing out on catching them, but gaining great pleasure from the hunt. He also chased up and down the Donegal beaches, but there was less entertainment from crabs and jelly fish than from the meadow wildlife.
Bryce was in sparkling good health during his six weeks in Donegal, and it was only after he had returned home that a problem became evident. Peter noticed a few small lumps sticking up from the skin around his head and neck. Bryce already had a couple of warts in this area, like many older dogs, and Peter knew from previous visits to the vet that nothing needed to be done about them. Unless they started to bother Bryce in some way, or to grow bigger rapidly, no action was needed. At first, Peter thought that the new small lumps were freshly grown warts. But when the skin in the area began to look red and sore, Peter knew that there was something else going on. When he studied the “warts” closely and carefully, he could clearly see what they were: ticks.
Ticks are tiny blood sucking parasites, closely related to spiders. They hide in rough grassland, waiting for animals to pass by. When they sense the movement, temperature and smell of nearby animals, ticks wave their legs excitedly, repeatedly grasping the air around them. If an animal brushes against it, the tick grabs hold of any passing part of the animal’s body. It then clambers up the body, seeking out a warm, soft patch of skin, where it pushes its vampire-like mouth-parts through the skin, into a blood vessel. It then becomes tightly attached to the animal, with its barb-like teeth preventing it from falling off.
After a tick has become attached, it spends the next few weeks sucking blood, swelling up to pea-sized or bigger. Finally, when enough blood has been drawn, the tick relaxes its grip and falls off the animal into the undergrowth. The female ticks then lay hundreds of eggs before dying. The eggs hatch into young tick larvae, and the life cycle starts again.
Most Irish wild mammals are attractive to ticks. Ticks attach to sheep, cattle, rabbits, voles and hedgehogs. Pet dogs and cats, and even humans can also be affected. In some animals, such as cattle, ticks can transmit blood-borne organisms that cause serious diseases like Redwater. Pets and humans are not at a significant risk from such illnesses: there is only one tick-borne condition in Ireland, called Lyme Disease and it is fairly rare.
In most cases, ticks in Ireland are simply an annoying nuisance. Ticks often irritate dogs and cats, and it is usually best to remove them. There are many different recommended techniques, but the single important fact to remember is not to leave the head behind. A tick’s head is tightly attached to its host’s skin by barbed teeth, like tiny fish-hooks. If the head of the tick breaks off as the tick is pulled out (and this can happen very easily), a foreign body reaction can follow. This can look red and swollen at first, and can develop into a large lump later. Any such reactions need to be bathed twice daily in mildly salty warm water and often further treatment is needed from the vet.
So which tick removing technique is best? The traditional trick of killing the tick with a lighted cigarette is not necessary and you may even end up burning your pet by mistake. It is possible to pull a tick out with tweezers, or even with your finger and thumb, but it is fiddly, and it is easy to accidentally leave the tightly attached head behind. A recent survey of vets showed that the latest preferred technique for tick removal is a simple tool called the “O’Tom Tick Remover”. This is a microscopically engineered plastic hook device which extracts the tick from the skin in the same way as an up-market corkscrew removes the cork from a bottle of wine. Many vets sell this device to the public. You can find out more at www.otom.com.
If an animal has large numbers of ticks, it may be better to use a generalised treatment such as an insecticidal spray rather than attempting to pull off each individual tick. If you live in a tick-prone area, it may be worth considering such a spray, or even a special spot-on product to prevent ticks attaching in the first place. Ticks have seasonal peaks, in the autumn and spring, so even if you don’t use these products continually, they are worth considering at high risk times.
Peter brought Bryce in to see me – I removed a dozen ticks, and prescribed a course of antibiotics because his skin was red and sore where the ticks had been attached. Peter has now been equipped with his own tick remover, and Bryce will definitely be given an anti-parasite treatment before any future visits to Donegal.
+ Ticks are common in many parts of the Irish countryside
+ There are seasonal peaks in tick activity, in the autumn and spring
+ Ticks need to be removed with care, to avoid leaving the tick’s head embedded in your pet