A Guide To Ticks On Dogs & Cats

Just as with fleas, it is not uncommon for your dog to get ticks at some point in its life. Cats can also get ticks, although it is rarer.

The parasites are pretty good at transferring to their host before attaching themselves to their coat. At this point, it can be hard to spot them, but there are ways to prevent, catch and treat ticks on your pet.

Because they are common, you should always be prepared. So read below on what to do, and keep a tick removal tool handy in your Pet First Aid box.

What is a tick?

A tick is an eight-legged parasite that can live on your dog or cat, biting them to drink their blood.

There are various kinds of ticks out there, such as dog ticks, sheep ticks and hedgehog ticks.

In fact, there are thought to be twenty species of tick that are endemic in the UK in total

But if your dog or cat has ticks, they can also transfer to humans and any other pets in the home. Some can even spread disease by transmitting bacteria and microbes (although it is important to note that not all ticks carry disease, so don’t panic if your dog has one).

The most common disease caused by ticks is Lyme Disease, which has regularly been in the news as incidence has risen in the past decade with some high-profile cases.

Some areas of the UK are at higher risk of ticks and disease than others. For instance, parks in London with deer present are thought to be a source of many cases of Lyme disease in the area.

If you are concerned, ask your vet whether you are in a high-risk part of the country (but you should always be aware of the risk, even if there are no recorded cases).

How does a dog get ticks?

Unsurprisingly, they are not pleasant little critters.

Ticks can be found in wooded areas or long grass. They will undergo ‘questing’ after they hatch, where they crawl 18 to 24 inches up grass or low shrub areas. Then, they simply sit and wait.

Nymphal tick activity increases during spring, peaking from April to June, although they are active throughout the year

They need these areas as they are sensitive to temperature and humidity. When you or your dog brush up against these areas, the tick hitches a ride. It can then start feeding pretty much straight away.

Not creeped out yet? What if we told you that they can live well over a year without feeding? So, if your dog had a tick issue a few months ago on your regular walking route, they can easily be infected again.

Ticks and wildlife

Deer are only one of the few animals that carry ticks but get quite the burden and blame.

It has been shown that species of birds are far more significant carriers of ticks. So, just because your local park or wood has deer doesn’t always mean there will be tick infestations – this is a myth.

But it does mean that ticks could be a lot closer to home than you’d think, in gardens or residential areas

However, ticks are shown to be more common in areas with deer, sheep, hedgehogs or rabbits.

Mice Carry Ticks
Wild mice are another common carrier

What do ticks look like on dogs?

Ticks are naturally very tiny, but once they have sunk their teeth into their host, they can swell up to be as large as a pea. This is usually when they are spotted by humans.

At first glance, you may think that it is some sort of wart or skin tag. But looking closer, you will be able to see their legs. They look a bit like a small spider.

They are between 1mm and 1cm long depending on age, and will sometimes start out with a white body. As they feed, this body gets larger and darker.

Every time you groom your pet, you should be looking out for signs of ticks and fleas, as well as general skin irritation.

You can also feel them – part your pet’s fur, or run your fingers over their skin, and you will feel a small lump. They will most commonly reside on the neck and head area but are also found on ears or feet.

It is a good idea to check the entire body though. Unlike with fleas, there are no other signs such as defecation or eggs left on the skin and you won’t find ticks jumping around in your bed/on the sofa. Talking of which…

Tick before and after feeding
Tick before and after feeding

Do ticks lay eggs on pets?

Thankfully not. Unlike fleas, ticks just use your pet as a source of food. The life aim of a tick is just to feed, become strong and mate to reproduce. Quite the life.

The males will remain on the host indefinitely until they are removed, feeding and mating away. The females feed, mate, become engorged and then drop off the animal to lay their eggs elsewhere.

But as said above, they can live for up to a year without feeding. Ticks typically lay their eggs outside in areas frequented by animals and wildlife, on top of the ground in soil. Once hatched, they start their ‘quest’.

Are there any physical symptoms of ticks on pets?

Tick bites, just as with fleas, can cause irritation and redness. You may see the redness first if your dog has short fur, but if the irritation starts to bother them, they may itch or bite at themselves.

There will also be symptoms if the tick has passed on any disease, which is why you should always check your dog after a walk and every time they are brushed as you don’t want to get to this stage. The two most common diseases are Lyme and Babesiosis.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a very critical bacterial infection. Symptoms include your pet seeming depressed and losing its appetite. They may also face fever, lameness, swollen or painful joints, and swollen lymph nodes.

It can be treated with antibiotics but you must contact your vet as soon as possible. Signs have been shown in humans and dogs, and while cats can become infected with B. burgdorferi bacteria (the cause of Lyme disease), they don’t often show the above signs.

What is babesiosis?

Babesiosis disease is now extremely rare in the UK. The tick which spreads it is only in southern England and the continent. However, it did have fatal consequences for some dogs in Essex in 2016 and 2017.

In 2020, the first record of a UK-acquired case of babesiosis and the second case of TBE being acquired in the UK also occurred in Devon.

It is spread by tick bites, and despite the incubation period being two months, it can take years to become detected in your dog.

Signs of babesiosis may be that they seem depressed, have pale gums, a swollen abdomen and a fever. Loss of appetite and yellowing skin are other symptoms recorded.

If your dog has any of these symptoms and you have been walking in tick-infested areas, tell your vet straight away.

There is currently no evidence that babesiosis can affect cats, however before 2020 there was also no evidence that it could affect humans, so do be vigilant.

How to get rid of ticks on dogs & cats

First things first – never try to pull a tick out with your fingers, or a pair of tweezers.

If you do this, you risk leaving their head behind with the mouthpart attached to the skin. This can soon cause inflammation or infection, especially if the tick is diseased.

You should use a special tick removal tool that can lodge itself underneath the tick and unhook the mouthpart, before lifting the entire tick upwards and allowing you to safely dispose of it.

Read our full guide on how to remove a tick from your pet.

How To Remove A Tick From A Dog

Can I prevent dog ticks?

Some flea treatment can prevent ticks as well as fleas, although unfortunately, they aren’t always 100% reliable.

Just as with flea treatment, it can’t stop the tick from actually hitching a ride on your dog’s fur. It can only kill them when they bite into their host.

Having said this, it is the only way to try and at least reduce their impact.

As discussed above, you may live in an area where there are a particularly high number of ticks. If this is the case, follow these tips:

  • Walk on clearly defined paths to avoid brushing against vegetation where ticks may be present
  • Regularly check your dog for ticks on walks – the earlier they’re caught, the better
  • Wear lightly coloured clothing, long trousers and sleeves, and insect repellent to stop them jumping on to yourself
  • You may need to change your walking route and stick to more residential areas in high-risk months

Can cats get ticks?

Unfortunately so. They are a lot less likely to get them, but it happens.

Most of the above still apply. They look the same on the body, are important to check for every day when grooming and you must use a tool to remove them. Ticks will also be most common on your cat in the Spring and Autumn months, and on cats who regularly go through thickly wooded areas or grass such as those in the countryside.

But one issue is that they won’t show signs if they are carrying the bacteria which can cause Lyme disease. So, regular checking is vital to stop the spread.

It can be more difficult to remove a tick from a cat as they can struggle to stay still. Checking that the entire body has been removed is vital.

As they can jump between hosts, it is important to check other pets in the home if your dog or cat has an issue.