Blog post #3 – Part 1
“Tick Tock, Tick, Tick, Ticks” …are ticks a ticking time bomb for pets?
It’s that time of the year again, at least in the southern hemisphere, when adult ticks tend to become more active. So, what types of ticks are of concern for dogs and cats, and what simple steps can you consider for protection.
Just imagine – It’s a beautiful warm spring day, you are dressed ready for a walk and you grab the dog leash. Your dog barks and jumps around the living room with great excitement. “Let’s go, let’s go!”, the anticipation wiggles his whole body. You securely clip the lead onto his harness, open the front door and away you go! Charging down the street, tracking along the pavement for a few blocks as your dog busily sniffs all the posts and street poles along the way with a leg lift after each sniff. He proudly trots along to the next odorous tree stump. You pass a few other people walking who are out and about in the bright morning sunlight, some are walking alone, but most also have their dogs with them. Your pooch exchanges a happy pant and a sniff with the 4-legged friends before heading along further with you. You soon make your way along the nature strip and head along a narrow foot path lined by grass on either side and eucalyptus trees towering above. You leap over a stream and continue your walk through the bush. Half and hour later you are back home felling energized and refreshed from the mornings walk in the fresh air; ready to continue with the day’s activities.
Fast forward 6 days and you are in tears visiting your beloved pet in the vet hospital. He is hooked up to intravenous fluids and is on a ventilator, which is doing the breathing for him…
What happened? How could your dog have ended up in this way? Could you have done anything to avoid this nightmare?
While this is a totally fictitious story, it is a good way to set that scene for discussing ticks and the risks they pose for your pets. So, let’s delve into this topic a little further and we will loop back to this story a little bit later….
What exactly is a tick?
- A blood sucking parasite
- Ticks attach themselves to a host using unique mouthparts and they feed on the host by taking a blood meal
Are they a type of insect?
- No ticks are not insects. Insects have 6 legs and often times have wings. Ticks are part of the arachnid class of arthropods which means that they are more like spiders. Adult ticks have 8 legs. Unlike spiders though, they do not spin a web.
- The life cycle of ticks includes eggs which hatch to form tiny little 6-legged larvae, which moult and develop into 8 legged nymphs, which eventually moult and develop into 8 legged adult ticks.
- All stages of the lifecycle feed on blood from their hosts.
- Now although there are many different species of ticks, there are 3 ticks in particular that are of greatest interest when it comes to domestic dogs and cats. These are the:
- Brown Dog Tick
- Bush Tick
- Paralysis Tick
Why should we be concerned about ticks?
- Because ticks feed on the blood of our pets they have the potential to transmit diseases.
The way they do this is by transferring microorganisms such as bacteria or other nasties (pathogens), which can result in disease in your pet.
- Diseases that are transmitted by parasites are sometimes referred to as vector borne diseases; the vector being the tick in this instance.
- A good example of a serious vector borne disease in humans is Malaria where the mosquito is the vector.
- In certain parts of the world there are some tick transmitted diseases such as Lyme disease in the USA and Babesiosis in Africa, which can make pets sick and, in the case of Babesia even die if they are not treated appropriately.
- In Australia, we are quite fortunate in that there are not many tick borne diseases in dogs and cats. A blood borne disease transmitted by ticks (Ehrlichiosis or tropical canine pancytopenia) has been identified in dogs in the NT (Northern Territory) in Australia. Fortunately, it is not currently widespread.
- While the name Tropical canine pancytopenia, sounds fancy, it simply means that it causes a drop in all types of blood cells in the body. This includes red blood cells, white blood cells and even the little platelets which are important, especially when it comes to blood clotting.
- Besides vector borne blood diseases certain types of tick have the potential to inject toxins into their host. These toxins have the potential to cause ill effects in their host.
- At times tick bites can become infected and develop into a wound in the skin
How do ticks get onto our pets to take a blood meal? ….Do they jump?
- Ticks fortunately are not able to jump. I say fortunately because they would probably get around a lot more easily if they were able to jump. In actual fact ticks are generally fairly slow, certainly compared to other parasites like fleas (these pests we will cover another time).
- To explain how ticks, get onto our pets, lets briefly go back to the lifecycle of the tick and then also make mention of the anatomy of ticks.
- Firstly, the lifecycle: you’ll remember there is an immature larva which develops into a nymph which in turn develops into an adult. Each of these three stages of the lifecycle feeds on the blood of a host.
- All 3 of the tick species listed above are 3-host ticks. That means that instead of the larvae getting on one host and remaining on that same individual until they develop into an adult; the larvae instead gets on a host and drops off before becoming a nymph which then gets onto another host and then drops off again before becoming an adult which gets onto yet another different individual host. All the while, each stage is feeding off a different individual host.
- Each time a tick drops off its host to moult into the next stage of development, it lives in the surrounding environment. For brown dog ticks, this environment is typically in and around where the dog frequents which could be in cracks and crevices indoors, it could be in certain areas of the garden, or could be around a kennel or bedding.
- For the bush tick and the paralysis tick the surrounding environment is most often grass, leaf litter, forest scrub and shrubs.
- Now for the anatomy: In order to get onto a host, the tick positions itself on some vegetation with outstretched legs waiting for a potential host to walk past and brush up against the vegetation. In so doing, the host picks up the tick in its coat of hair (in the case of a dog or cat) or on the clothing (if it’s a tasty human walking by). The tick clings on using the tiny paired claws that is has on the ends of its legs. It them makes its way onto a suitable place on the host, sinks its mouthparts in and begins feeding.
- The activity where ticks position themselves on vegetation with outstretched legs waiting for a host to walk by is known as “questing”
- Ticks have a sharp mouthparts that can cut into the skin and find little capillaries to take their blood meal.
- Ticks are able to remain attached quite firmly to their host due to a combination of barbs on their mouth parts and or cement which they secrete which helps to anchor them to the skin. The paralysis tick does not produce cement to help it attach to its host.
- When ticks are fully engorged with blood, they can look quite different to when they are unengorged. Engorged they look quite plump and roundish, whereas unfed they are much smaller and flat.
- Look out for part 2 of this blog post where we discuss paralysis tick in more detail, how to protect your pet from ticks, doing tick searches and more.
- We’ll also loop back on the story we began with, where you and your dog went for a walk with your dog ending up in the vet hospital on a ventilator a few days later
- If you would like to read part 2 of the blog post then click here
- So let’s sum up:
- Ticks are parasites with special mouthparts that allow them to feed on the blood of their host
- The life cycle of tick involves eggs hatching into larvae, which develop into nymphs and then adults
- The three ticks of greatest interest to pet parents in Australia are
- Brown dog tick
- Bush tick
- Paralysis tick
- Ticks get onto their host by questing as they wait for a host to pass by
- Ticks have the potential to cause health concerns in our pets
- Please share this post with those pet parents you think need to see this… If we can prevent just one pet from the potential perils of ticks, we would all have done a great deed.
- Tails up to that!
Author: Brett the vet
- Barker, S.C.; Walker, A.R. 2014. Ticks of Australia. The species that infest domestic animals and humans. Zootaxa. Magnolia Press. Auckland
- Ettinger, S.J; Feldman, E.C. 2005. Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 6th Elsevier Saunders.