Dr Jessica May, lead vet at video vet service FirstVet, explains what to do if a tick latches on to your horse.

What are ticks?

Ticks are small arachnids (the same class as spiders) which undergo four phases in their life cycle: egg, larvae, nymphs, and adult.

The tick requires blood meals to develop between these phases. After the nymph stage, ticks develop into either male or female adults.

Female ticks will need blood meals before they start to lay eggs, whilst male ticks don’t suck blood.

Ticks can spread disease, usually in the nymph stage of their life cycle and, if female, before they lay their eggs.

Tick larvae will also seek blood meals but will not transmit pathogens, which are what poisons or irritates its host.

You will normally find ticks in wet environments, on grass or in low bushes, especially from March to June, and then again from August to November – but there is a very significant risk of picking them up year –round.

The tick is blind but will feel vibrations, body heat, and carbon dioxide from one’s breath. If it finds you, the tick will crawl onto its host.

The tick will choose its host based on its size. Larvae will normally seek out small birds and mice, whilst nymphs will attach to rabbits, cats, and dogs, and the female ticks prefer larger animals, like horses.

The size is very important for the tick’s development since, if the host is too small, there will not be enough blood, and the tick will struggle to survive.

Once the tick has attached itself to a host, it will feed, during which it might transmit pathogens. This can cause skin irritation, bacterial skin infections, and small abscesses. In severe cases, especially in ponies and foals, a tick may even cause anaemia.

How can I prevent ticks latching on to my horse?

Tick prevention requires diligence: you must constantly check for ticks and, if found, quickly remove them. Application of tick-specific repellents is also key.

These should be applied to your horse’s mane, tail, head, chest, and underbelly before riding or turning your horse out on pasture.

Once your horse is returning to the stables, ensure that you check them thoroughly. Ticks are easier to feel than see, so run your hands through their mane, tail, and across their body, feeling for small bumps along the way, being careful not to damage or dislodge them by accident.

What should I do if a tick attaches to my horse?

If a tick attaches itself to your horse, you will need to remove it as soon as possible. Try the following:

  • Decide if you are confident to remove the tick yourself, or if you need assistance from your vet.
  • Wear latex gloves and use a tick fork. A tick attaches itself to the skin by screwing barbed mouthparts into the skin. Therefore, it is very important that the tick is removed using an un-screwing technique.
  • Alternatively, use fine-point tweezers to gently grasp and twist the head of the tick. Avoid grasping the body of the tick as this will cause it to regurgitate its stomach and salivary gland contents into the skin, increasing the risk of pathogen transmission.
  • If a tick is removed with a straight pulling motion or dislodges by accident, the mouthparts may be left behind in the skin and cause localised inflammation and infection.
  • DO NOT apply Vaseline, chemicals, or freeze/burn a tick, as this may also stimulate it to regurgitate its saliva and stomach contents, increasing the risk of infection.
  • Detached ticks should be sent in a crush-proof container to Public Health England for identification. This information is used to identify potential tick-borne diseases that may pass to animals or humans. A submission form can be found here.
  • Alternatively, drop the detached tick in a small jar of alcohol to kill it or flush it down the loo. After the tick is removed and killed, clean the area with a mild antiseptic solution or saltwater.
  • If the area looks very infected or irritated (red or swollen), you should contact your vet. Also, if you spot ticks around your horse’s ears, call a veterinarian to remove the tick, as safe removal may be difficult.

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