Ticks are back in the news, with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) issuing a warning about Lyme disease as warmer weather means people, and their animals, are spending more time outdoors.

Approximately four per cent of ticks in the UK carry the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease, and reports of this illness soared by a third last summer – with 882 acute instances compared to 635 in 2022.

Ticks are also 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.

A tick can’t fly or jump. Instead, it climbs into long grass or vegetation and lies in wait for a host to pass by and to brush past it, so that it can attach itself and dig in with its barbed, tubular mouthpart – sometimes secreting ‘attachment cement’ to make itself harder to remove.

In between sucking the host’s blood, the tick squirts saliva into the wound.

This saliva contains a protein that prevents the host’s blood from clotting. 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 thumb nail.

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 dogs and cats (as well as 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, and 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 can be successfully treated by the use of antibiotics if it is diagnosed early enough, but if left untreated it can cause serious, permanent damage to joints and the nervous system.

Adults are most commonly bitten on their legs, whilst children suffer most around their head or neck.

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.