Big Tick Project reveals nearly one in three dogs have ticks
Launched in the Spring of 2015 by TV presenter, naturalist and MyPetonline blogger Chris Packham and the University of Bristol, supported by MSD Animal Health, the Big Tick Project saw 1,094 veterinary practices from across the UK participate in the 16 week study. Over this period 12,092 dogs were chosen at random for a tick inspection. Scientists received 6,551 tick samples for analysis. There was an average of one tick collected from each dog, although the maximum number reported on an individual dog was around 200.
Ticks are blood sucking parasites which can attach and feed from a range of hosts including dogs, cats and people. Infected ticks can transmit a range of potentially serious infections such as Lyme disease to their host. Almost all the ticks collected from the dogs during the Big Tick Project were semi- or fully-engorged adults and had enjoyed a meal from their host.
In the study 89.2% of the dogs with ticks were found to be infested with the species Ixodes ricinus which is the principal carrier of Lyme disease (4) and Anaplasma.
Even more worryingly the team also identified a number of Dermacentor reticulatus ticks, which can transmit the potentially fatal disease canine babesiosis. These were collected from dogs in Wales and south west England. In the UK, there have been an increasing number of cases of babesiosis in dogs that have travelled to Europe (5). In March 2016, however, a cluster of cases of canine babesiosis was reported in Essex in non-travelled dogs confirming that this pathogen is now established in the UK (6).
The team at the University of Bristol mapped the ticks collected to build a picture of the current geographic spread of ticks in the UK and the resulting interactive map, searchable by postcode, shows the risk across the country on a scale of one to five.
The data shows that the highest prevalence of tick infestation is in South West England, East Anglia and Scotland, but levels are also high throughout most of central and northern England.
Surprisingly, dogs that were restricted to urban habitats were no less likely to have ticks than dogs exposed to more rural habitats. This corresponds with the growing number of reports of high numbers of ticks in urban environments (7).
Chris Packham is passionate about encouraging pet owners to be more tick aware all year round by protecting their animals against potentially serious tick-borne disease.
Chris Packham said: “The first thing that is striking about the results is that almost one in three dogs that were taken into vets and randomly tested were carrying ticks, which is shocking. Also, these ticks were not just found in isolated parts of the UK, but all over the UK.
“I would say that this is a tremendously significant project. It’s the largest of its kind ever conducted in the UK and it has been extensive. It was well supported by vets and dog owners too and the data has been rigorously analysed by the University of Bristol.
“This is good solid hard data which revealed some very shocking and surprising things about the distribution, the population and potential that ticks have to give diseases to our pets and ourselves.
I would say that this is a tremendously significant project. It’s the largest of its kind ever conducted in the UK and it has been extensive - Chris Packham
“I have two dogs, Itchy and Scratchy, my beloved Poodles, and I have to say that in the past I have found ticks attached to them and I been horrified because this was my mistake, I had been lax in treating them against ticks.
“The advice is very clear, go to your vet and speak to them about the most effective tick control for your pet.”
Professor Richard Wall (pictured above left), who led the Big Tick Project team at the University of Bristol said: “We were overwhelmed by the veterinary profession’s support for the Big Tick Project – the vast number of ticks collected and analysed make this a robust study, the results of which can only help to further raise awareness of the risk to pets and people from ticks.
We were overwhelmed by the veterinary profession’s support for the Big Tick Project – the vast number of ticks collected and analysed make this a robust study, the results of which can only help to further raise awareness of the risk to pets and people from ticks - Professor Richard Wall
“The work that we have carried out shows that ticks are extremely widely dispersed. Everywhere across the UK we are likely to get a fairly high abundance of ticks at particular times of the year. The records that we have got appear to show that we have had an increase in tick numbers right across the country.
“What we are primarily concerned about is the diseases that ticks carry. In the UK we have relatively low rates of the prevalence of these pathogens at the moment and in contrast in continental Europe they have much higher rates of disease. As there seems to be a rise in tick numbers, we need to be concerned and be aware of the potential for increasing problems. Pet owners in urban areas need to be as concerned as people walking dogs in more rural areas. We did a survey recently where we looked at tick abundance in parks in cities and we found about 30% of parks had ticks (8). Particularly where there is woodland or areas of areas of long grass, there is a risk.”
Veterinary Surgeon Michael Morrow, owner of St Vincents Veterinary Surgery in Wokingham, Berkshire has first-hand experience of the devastating effects of tick diseases from his early years of work in South Africa.
He comments: “Most pet owners only notice a tick once it is engorged, meaning it has potentially transmitted one of the diseases that we are so concerned about. Examining for ticks on a pet can be quite challenging even for veterinary professionals, and can take quite a while in a long coated animal. The juvenile forms are tiny, the size of a poppy seed and finding that size of parasite on a fur covered animal can be difficult. This is reflected in the Bristol University study, where the vast majority of ticks found, even with a thorough examination, were engorged adults.
“Effective tick control is as important as checking your pet for ticks and it’s really important that we as a veterinary profession along with public health organisations do our best to ensure that the public are completely informed about the risks that ticks pose to pets and to owners and to raise awareness of the dangers of tick-borne disease.
“Having lost my own dog to the disease some years ago, I am personally very concerned about the recent cases of canine babesiosis in the UK as this is a potentially fatal tick-borne disease relatively new to our shores. Most UK-based veterinary surgeons have never seen the disease and it can be very challenging to treat. This is absolutely a scenario where prevention is better than cure and I would urge all owners to consult their local veterinary surgery about the options for protection against ticks.”
Throughout Tick Awareness Month pet owners can take part in a pet owner survey via www.bigtickproject.co.uk to record their experience of dealing with ticks on their animals. Data from the survey is expected to further widen knowledge within the veterinary profession and among pet owners about the extent of the UK’s growing tick problem and its impact on our pets.
To reduce the risk associated with ticks in dogs, veterinary surgeons have innovative and convenient treatments that are only available on prescription.
The options available to protect dogs against exposure to ticks include oral chewable formulations which can give up to 12 weeks protection, spot-ons (typically applied every four weeks), sprays and collars.
For best advice on how to remove a tick correctly from your pet please speak to your vet (9).
Abdullah S, Helps C, Tasker S, Newbury H, Wall R. Ticks infesting domestic dogs in the UK: a large-scale surveillance programme. Parasites & Vectors (2016) 9:391
The Big Tick Project (www.bigtickproject.co.uk) was launched by the University of Bristol in conjunction with MSD Animal Health in response to what appears to be a rapidly growing problem in the UK of tick-borne disease with potential for health and economic impacts. Launched in April 2015 by TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, participating veterinary practices were asked to examine dogs in their practice for ticks each week using a standard grooming protocol and complete a questionnaire relating to the clinical history of each dog. Tick samples were then sent to the University of Bristol, where they were identified to species, life-cycle stage, sex, mapped by location of origin and examined for the presence of pathogens. All ticks of the same species found on any one dog have been pooled for analysis.
Symptoms of babesiosis can range from mild to severe and include lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, anemia, pale gums, an enlarged abdomen, weight loss and jaundice.
Smith, F.D. et al 2013. Prevalence of Babesia and Anaplasma in ticks infesting dogs in Great Britain. Vet Parasitol 198, 18-23
On the 25th January 2012, the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol published the findings of a survey of pet dogs in Scotland, England and Wales, which showed that, at 0.5% or 481 infected ticks per 100,000 dogs, the prevalence of ticks infected with Lyme disease in the dog population may be much higher than previously thought. Consequently, it was concluded that the percentage of ticks in the UK infected with Lyme borreliosis and the corresponding risk to humans is also likely to be much higher than previously believed: http://bristol.ac.uk/news/2012/8176.html
Holm LP, Kerr MG, Trees AJ, McGarry JW, Munro ER, Shaw SE. Fatal babesiosis in an untravelled British dog. Vet Rec. 2006;159:179–80.
Phipps LP, Fernandez De Marco MDM, Hernández-Triana LM, Johnson N, et al.
Babesia canis detected in dogs and associated ticks from Essex. Vet Rec.
Ogden NH, Cripps P, Davison CC, Owen G, Parry JM, Timms BJ, Forbes AB.
The ixodid tick species attaching to domestic dogs and cats in Great Britain and Ireland. Med Vet Entomol. 2000;14:332–8.
In a survey of 33 urban or peri-urban parks in the south of England conducted by University of Bristol School of Biological Sciences in 2014, ticks were found in 11 of them (Richard Wall, unpublished data).
Some veterinary surgeries and pet shops sell inexpensive tick removal devices which may be useful if spending time in areas where there are ticks.