Keeping Ticks at Bay

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Keeping Ticks at Bay

Guest Post: Dr Jessica May, FirstVet

This weeks guest author is Dr Jessica May, the lead vet at video vet service, FirstVet UK. In this insightful article, Dr May delivers valuable advice on diseases, safe removal and other need-to-know information on how to deal with ticks this summer.

What are ticks?

Ticks are small parasites, reddish-brown or black, which feed on the blood of mammals, including horses. They are increasingly common in the UK. The three most common species of tick are Ixodes ricinus (sheep or deer tick); Ixodes hexagonus (hedgehog tick); and Dermacentor reticulatus (marsh tick). Before feeding they are so small that they will barely be visible (<0.5mm) but once engorged after feeding on blood, they have a more substantial, rounded shape, up to almost half a centimetre.

Where are ticks found?

Ticks cannot jump or fly; they instead crawl onboard to take a blood meal when a host passes by. Once they have fed, they detach from the host and drop to the ground to lay eggs or moult. They are most commonly found in rural areas of woodland, grassland and moorland. The highest number of ticks can be found in areas with high livestock density, including water troughs, feeding areas and around trees.

Pony Grazing - Keeping Ticks at Bay

Ticks and Disease

Tick bites themselves rarely cause a problem. If they are present on a host in vast numbers, they may cause anaemia, or challenge their host’s immune system, but this is very unlikely in horses. However, ticks can transmit a variety of potentially dangerous diseases to horses, including, Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis, Bartonellosis, Q-fever, Louping ill virus and Lyme Disease.


Lyme Disease is a tick-borne infection caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is a serious chronic inflammatory disease that affects many-body systems. Humans and other animals, including horses, can be affected by Lyme Disease. The vast majority of ticks will not transmit the disease; however, it cannot pass from one infected animal to another without the help of ticks. Lyme Disease is a serious concern. Owners should be aware of the dangers that ticks can pose and remove them quickly to minimise the risks. Infection typically occurs after the tick has been attached to the horse for around 24 hours.

Signs of a tick bite (days to weeks)

● An infection around the tick bite area (80% of cases)
● Further skin infections, remote from the tick bite site

Signs of Lyme Disease (weeks to months)

Most infected horses do not show obvious clinical signs. However, there are a few signs you can look out for in your horse that may suggest a Lyme Disease infection:

● Lameness: sore joints lead to a stiff gait and/or recurrent lameness affecting different legs
● Lethargy
● Low-grade fever
● Hypersensitivity and muscle tenderness
● Neurological dysfunction
● Inflammation of the eyes

If you notice any of these signs, contact your vet as soon as possible.

How to help prevent tick bites

Tick prevention requires diligence; check your horse daily for ticks and, if found, remove them promptly. Application of tick-specific repellents is also recommended. These should be applied to your horse’s mane, tail, head, chest, and along underneath the abdomen, before riding or before turning your horse out in the paddock. Once your horse returns to the stable, ensure that you check them thoroughly. Ticks are easier to feel than to see, so run your hands gently through their mane, tail, and across their body, feeling for small bumps along the way, being careful not to damage or dislodge a tick by accident. Top tip: incorporate this into a daily grooming routine, before brushing.

What to do if you find a tick on your horse

If you find a tick on your horse, use a tick fork to remove it. Tick Twister has a useful video to demonstrate how to use their tick fork. When a tick bites its host, it inserts its mouth parts through the skin in a twisting motion. Therefore, a tick must be twisted out of the skin to remove it safely and entirely. Crucially, do not apply Vaseline, chemicals, or try to freeze or burn a tick, as this may stimulate it to regurgitate its saliva and stomach contents, which increases the risk of infection.

O'tom Tick Twister
O’tom Tick Twister – Amazon £3.99 – click here

Once removed, the affected area should be cleansed with an antiseptic solution or salt water. Ticks should be killed (not by crushing) or 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.

Treatment of tick bites and Lyme Disease

If a tick bites your horse and is then dislodged by accident, mouth parts can remain in the skin. The area should be monitored closely for signs of infection for the following days. A localised skin reaction may occur, which can take several weeks to resolve fully.

As it is a bacterial infection, the treatment for Lyme Disease usually requires an intensive and prolonged course of antibiotics. Kidney function will often be monitored before, during and after treatment.

The best way to keep your horse safe from any tick-related health issues is to be diligent in the prevention of tick bites; regularly check your horse for ticks and control the environment around your horse. If you follow these steps, you should be well on your way to keeping your horse healthy, happy and tick-free this summer.

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