Ticks are back in the news, not just because of the risk they pose of transmitting Lyme disease but because they are responsible for tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), which is now being seen in various parts of the UK.

Although it remains an uncommon disease, scientists are on ‘high alert’ because it causes the brain to swell, like meningitis, and it can be deadly.

The tick species that can carry TBE is widespread in the UK (and thought to be present on the Isle of Man) and TBE is common in many parts of Europe.

It is likely, therefore, that the virus has spread to the UK via ticks that have attached themselves to migratory birds, and which have then dropped off their hosts.

Ticks can’t fly or jump. Instead, they climb into long grass or vegetation and lie in wait for a host to pass by and to brush past them, so that they can attach themselves and start to suck blood.

If several ticks attach themselves to a small mammal, like a hedgehog, or to a bird they can cause anaemia or create an infection, which can kill the host.

Ticks can be tiny and hard to spot but once they have gorged themselves on blood they can grow to the size of a thumbnail.

They then drop off their host when they have had enough, usually after a few days.

Larger mammals don’t die from anaemia like the smaller ones but they can become infected by a potentially fatal bacterial illness called Lyme disease.

Dogs, cats and humans can all get Lyme disease, although it is uncommon in cats.

Symptoms in dogs and cats include lethargy, loss of appetite, fever, lameness, painful joints, and swollen lymph nodes.

If caught in its early stages, Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics by your vet, and so contact your veterinary surgery straight away if you are concerned.

Prevention is better than cure. So please make sure your dog or cat is up-to-date with their flea and tick treatments, available as ‘spot-ons’ or tablets, which kill or repel unwanted blood-suckers.

If you do notice a tick on your pet, don’t try to remove it by pinching or squeezing it, which may result in the tick’s head being left in the skin.

This can push blood back into your pet, which will increase the chances of them getting infected.

Ideally you should use a tick removal tool, which can be picked up from your veterinary surgery or local pet shop where staff will be able to give you advice about how to use it.

Don’t try to burn ticks off, or use Vaseline or nail polish to suffocate them, or alcohol to poison them – all ‘urban myths’ which run the risk of making a bacterial infection more likely.

Lyme disease in humans is becoming more commonplace.

Recent research indicates that the total number of Lyme disease cases in the UK per annum could be as high as 8,000.

If caught early the disease can be successfully treated by the use of antibiotics, but if left untreated it can cause serious, permanent damage to joints and the nervous system.

The disease has many symptoms which makes it difficult to diagnose.

In about a quarter of cases a circular, red rash develops around the bite, and in many cases a person develops ‘flu’ like symptoms such as lethargy, aching joints and a high temperature.

If you have been out in the countryside and you show these symptoms, you must seek immediate medical advice.

In order to protect yourself whilst outdoors, the advice given by Lyme Disease UK is to:

•Spray yourself and your clothes with insect repellent (ideally one containing DEET)

•Avoid walking through long grass, and stick to pathways

•Wear long sleeves and tuck trousers into socks

•Take a shower and check for ticks when you get home. They can look like tiny black dots if they haven’t fed, and so are hard to spot