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Top Tips on Avoiding Tick bites and Lyme Disease

There could be ticks lurking in the long grass.

Nobody likes a blood-sucking creepy-crawly. And a blood-sucking creepy-crawly that also transmits a potentially debilitating disease has to be the lowest of the low. We’re talking ticks here, tiny arachnids that hang around in the vegetation just waiting for a nice, juicy host to wander past. That host could be a deer or a sheep. It could be your dog. It could be you.

Once a tick has found a warm body, it’ll hook its mouth parts into the skin and begin feeding. The host doesn’t normally know it’s been bitten – the tick’s saliva contains a natural anaesthetic – and, in most cases, the bite will have no long-term effects. However, some ticks carry diseases that can be transmitted to the host, the most common of these in the UK being Lyme disease.

The classic bull’s-eye rash associated with a tick bite. (Picture courtesy of Lyme Disease Action)

Both dogs and humans can catch Lyme disease. In dogs, watch for loss of appetite, fever, lameness, painful joints and swollen lymph nodes. In humans, one of the first signs is often a rash, usually resembling a bull’s-eye. Humans can also experience anything from flu-like symptoms to complications involving the central nervous system such as fatigue, dizziness, headaches, unexplained pain, poor memory, anxiety attacks, disturbed sleep, seizures and digestive problems. The list goes on – as do the symptoms if left untreated – so it’s important to avoid being bitten in the first place.

As far as dogs are concerned, there are products designed to prevent ticks from doing any harm. These include liquid pesticide ‘spot-ons’ and sprays as well as collars impregnated with substances that kill the tick as soon as it begins feeding. There have been some concerns surrounding the safety of some of these products, so owners should seek advice from their vets about what is suitable for their dog (or cat).

It’s a good idea to check your dog regularly for ticks. That means grooming thoroughly, checking inside ears, between toes and around the muzzle. Make sure you brush against the hair to reveal ticks already attached to the skin.

A young tick attaches itself to human skin. (Picture courtesy of Lyme Disease Action)

As far as humans are concerned, there are things you can do to minimise the risk of being bitten by a tick while out walking:

  • Avoid walking through dense vegetation such as long grass, bracken and heather
  • If on a path, avoid the edges where there may be overhanging vegetation
  • Wear long trousers and tuck them into your socks. Gaiters are also a useful form of armour.
  • Wear light-coloured clothes so ticks are easier to spot
  • Use insect repellents containing DEET or Picaridine, although some people have adverse reactions to them. Clothing can be treated with the insecticide Permethrin
  • Remove outdoor clothes before going indoors

After a walk, check your body carefully for ticks, particularly the warm, damp areas favoured by the arachnids – backs of knees, armpits, groin, hairline and scalp.

If you find a tick – and this applies to dogs as well as humans – it’s important that all of it, including mouthparts, are removed as quickly as possible, but that doesn’t mean tugging it out with your fingers. It also doesn’t mean applying heat or Vaseline to it, as some websites suggest. If you do this, or if you press on the tick’s body, it’s more likely to regurgitate its stomach contents – and if those contents include Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease, you could be in trouble.

Using a tick removal tool

The best way to remove ticks from dogs and humans is to use either pointed tweezers (not blunt-ended ones) or a tick removal tool that employs a twisting method to free the firmly embedded creature. If using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it out without twisting.

If you or your dog has been bitten by a tick, you need to watch for the symptoms described earlier and seek veterinary or medical help immediately if any develop. Early treatment with antibiotics can prevent more severe problems further down the line.