The clock that never stops ticking - Veterinary Practice
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The clock that never stops ticking

Nikki Cumberbeach looks at the effect of the relaxation of pet passport laws on animals already domesticated in the UK, and the diseases ticks are bringing with them – some very serious.

I’M AT RECEPTION WHEN A CLIENT COMES IN and announces they need to “get rid of the dog’s fleas” as the flea bomb/shampoo/collar/spot-on from the pet shop/garlic/next door neighbours’ mystical mutterings (delete as applicable) haven’t worked…

At this point if I’m feeling weary my heart sinks as I launch into a well-worn speech as to how to treat the dog, the products available and how to treat the environment too. However, on my more positive days I remind myself how another person educated is another animal not having to put up with fleas – and a chance to talk worms and ticks also.

And that is important – fleas are one thing, but the prevention of worms and ticks has never been so crucial. Lungworm is no longer just confined to hotspots in the south of the UK – prevention of this parasite can be the difference between life and death. And as for ticks – the danger of tick-borne disease is a clear and present danger for dogs as never before.

Passport laws were relaxed in 2012, meaning that dogs could enter the UK 21 days after their rabies vaccination from an EU country. Tick prevention was no longer required before entry, only tapeworm treatment.

This relaxation of passport laws brought the UK in line with the rest of Europe but has had a number of consequences that will and are now affecting dogs’ health in the UK. Puppies are being brought into the UK for sale in greater numbers and there has been an increase in charities and individuals rescuing street dogs from countries such as Romania, Spain and Bulgaria.

So what does this mean? Well, you may have heard of and participated in The Big Tick Project which managed to collect 6,500 tick samples taken mainly by us lovely VNs from UK dogs – the results are still pending but it will be interesting to see what the prevalence of non-UK ticks are.

However, it has now been confirmed that there have been several cases of Babesia in dogs that have not travelled and have not been in contact with recently travelled dogs, suggesting that the tick Rhipicephalus (among others), which acts as a vector for Babesia, could already be in the UK.

This isn’t surprising considering the relaxation of the passport laws and the EU dogs now in the UK. And if/now here, we will be unable to reverse this, meaning that our advice as VNs about tick control is more important than ever.

Babesiosis causes fever, lethargy, anorexia, jaundice and pallor, splenomegaly and haemoglobinuria. Diagnosis is haematology showing haemolytic anaemia, normally regenerative, often thrombocytopenia – detection of the parasite is via blood smears and a PCR test is available. Treatment is supportive for shock and anaemia, fluid therapy and blood transfusions. Drug therapy is dependent on the species of Babesia but dogs can have recurrence of symptoms throughout life.

Another tick-borne disease is Ehrlichiosis, again commonly transmitted by Rhipicephalus. It can cause similar signs to Babesiosis – once transmitted the organism resides in white blood cells and reproduces here. It is also found within the spleen, lymph nodes, liver and bone marrow.

The acute phase of the disease normally occurs one to three weeks after the infected tick bite and lasts for two to four weeks.

At this point the dog is either able to fight off the infection or else they enter a subclinical phase which can last for months or years whilst erhlichia is in the spleen – dogs may appear normal or just show mild anaemia. Again, the infection is either eliminated or progresses to the chronic phase, either mild or severe.

Diagnosis is via haematology (thrombocytopenia, impaired platelet function) and PCR test – treatment is available although German Shepherds and Dobermans tend to suffer the more chronic stage of the disease and carry a poorer prognosis.

Losing exotic status?

So these two diseases are serious issues and may not in the future be such an exotic disease to us. Prevention of transmission of disease from tick bites has to be part of the advice we give dog owners and this is without us considering Lyme disease which is already an issue.

And it is worth being mindful how the different tick products work. Is prevention of ticks biting better than the products that cause the ticks to drop off before “traditional disease transmission”?

Ehrlichiosis can be transmitted within a few hours of a tick biting. Educating clients to check their dogs after walks for ticks and providing them with information as to how to safely remove them also has an important part to play.

So I have mainly talked about diseases and issues with ticks, but I have personally nursed a number of cases of leishmaniasis (transmitted by sand flies) present in dogs “rescued” from Spain – these “exotic” diseases are no longer as exotic as they sound, and could be more commonplace than we would like to think.

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