Preventing tick-borne disease through awareness

The largest study of ticks on dogs ever undertaken in the UK provided the science behind a successful and high profile campaign, endorsed by TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, to raise awareness of tick-borne diseases and how to protect against them.

Prior to the campaign, 47% of pet owners asked were unaware that people are also at risk of infection from tick-borne diseases. Thanks to the research and the campaign it informed, a later survey found 71% of the vets involved reporting a higher client awareness of the risks presented by ticks: 49% noted clients asking about ticks unprompted and 67% observed that more clients were now using regular tick treatments.

The Big Tick Study was led by Professor Richard Wall  in response to concerns that tick numbers are rising, driven partly by climate change, by increases in tick hosts such as deer and by changes to environmental management. This prompted fears about the increasing risks of tick-borne infections such as Lyme disease and babesiosis, not just in the countryside, but in urban areas too.

An interdisciplinary research team from Biological Sciences and Bristol Veterinary School  carried out the study, working with industry partner MSD Animal Health and veterinary practices across the UK. The Big Tick Project gained almost blanket national media coverage, generated its own website and was estimated by MSD Animal Health to have a total audience reach of 75 million through online, TV and radio broadcasting.

An interactive map on the Big Tick Project website allows people to see whether their area is high risk and how to check their pets for ticks and remove ticks correctly.

Lack of awareness

Prior to the study, there had been only limited national-scale research on the prevalence of ticks and tick-borne pathogens and the risk they posed to health. A survey by MSD Animal Health suggested a worrying lack of awareness among pet owners, with only 12% concerned by the risk posed by ticks, and 47% unaware that humans are also at risk of infection from tick-borne diseases.

Professor Wall said, ‘In the UK the proportion of ticks that carry the pathogens that cause disease is still relatively small, so to get clear evidence we needed a very large sample size. Our answer was to design a mass participation study of ticks on dogs, focusing on some of the key tick-borne pathogens in the UK that cause diseases such as Lyme. The idea was to use the data collected to map the distribution of ticks countrywide to help us identify disease risk - to raise public awareness of ticks and tick-borne diseases and educate dog owners how to protect against them’.

Widespread support from vets 

A total of 1,461 veterinary practices participated, and 6,372 ticks were sent in from over 7,000 dogs. Almost one third of dogs included in the study (31%) were found to be carrying a tick, and 15% of practices detected ticks on more than half of the dogs inspected. The results showed that ticks and tick-borne pathogens are widely dispersed across the country.

When these findings are added to the latest figures from Public Health England, showing that people testing positive for Lyme disease rose by nearly a third from 2016 to 2017, the value of the campaign becomes clear. Evidence is also emerging of novel tick-borne pathogens such as Babesia canis travelling to the UK from other parts of mainland Europe and spreading via ticks to dogs that haven’t travelled.

Professor Wall said, ‘Our study helps us understand these changes and could have important implications for human and animal health by quantifying the diversity and prevalence of the pathogens ticks may be carrying’.

The study of ticks on dogs was followed up using the same approach to look at ticks on cats. This revealed some intriguing differences, such as the much higher prevalence of hedgehog ticks on cats, particularly in urban areas.

Hannah Newbury, technical manager at MSD Animal Health who worked alongside the project team said, ‘We were amazed by the response, support and level of interest these projects have generated from veterinary practices and pet owners. The regional data will help veterinary practices quantify the risk and recommend appropriate, regular parasiticide treatment’.

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