Animal Health Professionals Site

30 March 2016

Experts behind Britain’s largest-ever study of tick-borne illness in dogs warn vigilance is needed against threat from new diseases such as canine babesiosis

  • Presence of Babesia canis in UK raises need for surveillance says Big Tick Project leader Professor Richard Wall
  • University of Bristol is currently analysing 1000s of ticks collected by veterinary practices as part of MSD Animal Health’s Big Tick Project
  • Big Tick Project study is mapping tick hotspots to identify disease risks. It is hoped that the results of the study will powerfully highlight the challenge that an increasing distribution and prevalence of ticks brings to human and animal health
  • Results to be published later this summer at start of Tick Awareness Month in July - scale of response from vets has ‘overwhelmed’ scientists

LONDON, 30 March 2016 – Scientists at University of Bristol conducting the Big Tick Project (1) in conjunction with MSD Animal Health (a division of Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, NJ, USA.) say recent confirmed cases of Babesia canis (2) in dogs that had not travelled abroad, have increased the need for surveillance of tick-borne disease in the UK.

Following an ‘overwhelming’ response by veterinary practices, The Big Tick Project, led by Professor Richard Wall and launched last spring by TV naturalist Chris Packham, has become the largest-ever veterinary study of ticks and tick-borne disease in the UK, if not worldwide.

In addition to the potential for tick mapping and greater understanding about what is perceived to be a rise in the risks to dogs (3) and people from Lyme Disease, the emergence in four dogs in Essex of babesiosis, a life-threatening disease transmitted to dogs by infected ticks usually found in Europe, has highlighted the need for a major investigation on the scale of the Big Tick Project, says Professor Wall.

Professor Wall says: “The recent Babesia cases in Essex are of huge significance. The fact that we now appear to have established populations of the tick Dermacentor reticulatus acting as vectors of the introduced pathogen Babesia canis is a new and important development and a major concern for animal health. It clearly demonstrates the potential dangers from the inadvertent introduction of novel disease pathogens if vigilance and surveillance are not maintained.”

UK tick mapping and disease analysis underway at University of Bristol

A total of 1,461 veterinary practices responded to the request for tick collection last spring and summer by the University of Bristol team. Between them they sent in a staggering 6,372 ticks by post to researchers at the School of Biological Sciences’ Veterinary Parasitology and Ecology Unit.

These tick samples are currently being ‘mapped’ by location and analysed for the presence of tick-borne disease such as Lyme disease and Babesia.

The results of the Big Tick Project are due later this year and will be released to coincide with the first national Tick Awareness Month this July which is being supported by veterinary practices across the country to raise awareness and improve education aimed at preventing infection amid growing concern over the risk to pets and people from tick-borne disease. A study last year (5) highlighted an alarming lack of awareness amongst dog owners about ticks and Lyme disease. 47% of dog owners surveyed don’t know that ticks can transmit diseases to both dogs and humans, whilst over half (54%) of dog owners don’t know that Lyme disease affects both dogs and humans.

In contrast, Professor Wall says that already, the sheer volume of ticks submitted from across the UK to the research team is evidence of the growing awareness among veterinary practices of the importance of ticks as disease vectors in the UK.

Professor Wall said: “When we called for the collection of ticks we were anticipating receiving 100s of specimens rather than 1000s – so we were delighted and somewhat overwhelmed by the response. The level of participation and scale of the project will mean it has increased significance with potential benefits in understanding the risks to both animal and human health.”

‘Big Tick Project’ has taken on new significance – Chris Packham

TV presenter, naturalist and dog owner Chris Packham who launched the project said its significance has increased over the course of the past year: “The Big Tick Project is an important study and we are grateful to all the veterinary teams and pet owners whose animals had ticks removed on a visit to the surgery and have taken part in the survey.

“When we launched the study last year, I was struck by the experiences of the people and animals who have suffered the misfortune of contracting Lyme disease which is a horrible infection which can do lasting damage to its victims - both people and animals. The discovery of cases of Babesia canis for the first time in dogs that have not travelled outside the UK is very worrying indeed and underlines the need for greater awareness of the need to protect our pets from ticks.

“Any advance in our knowledge that will help vets and the medical profession support us in protecting our pets and ourselves when enjoying the benefits of the great outdoors has to be welcomed.”

Results of Big Tick Project ‘can’t come soon enough’ – Hannah Newbury MRCVS

Hannah Newbury MRCVS, technical manager at MSD Animal Health, who has worked alongside the Big Project Team said: “The Big Tick Project has gathered momentum and we have been overwhelmed by the response, support and level of interest from the veterinary profession. The results, which will be available to individual practices and published nationally later this year will be eagerly anticipated not just by veterinary teams but also campaigners for wider education on Lyme disease and other tick-borne illness and in the light of the Babesia canis cases, they can’t come soon enough.”

Debbie White, Practice Manager at Forest Veterinary Centre in Essex which has contributed to the Big Tick Project and which has experience of treating dogs infected with Babesia in recent months, said: “We were pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the Big Tick Project and submitted a number of ticks to the study.

“Given the experience we have had in practice, we will be keen to receive the findings from the Big Tick Project and will be taking part in Tick Awareness Month this summer as we feel it is important to highlight the issue to pet owners.

“The cases of Babesia canis that we have seen in the last few months have highlighted that after a warm, wet winter, ticks are not only active earlier than ever, they are carrying potentially new and harmful disease and we will be encouraging our pet owners to take steps to protect their pets effectively from tick bites.”

To reduce the risk associated with ticks in dogs, veterinary surgeons have innovative and convenient treatments that are only available on prescription. The options available to protect dogs against exposure to ticks include spot-ons (typically applied every four weeks), sprays, collars and oral chewable formulations which can give up to 12 weeks protection. For best advice on how to remove a tick correctly from your pet please speak to your vet (5).

1 The Big Tick Project ( was launched by the University of Bristol in conjunction with MSD Animal Health in response to what appears to be a rapidly growing problem in the UK of tick-borne disease with potential for health and economic impacts. Launched in April 2015 by TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, participating veterinary practices were asked to examine dogs in their practice for ticks each week using a standard grooming protocol and complete a questionnaire relating to the clinical history of each dog. Tick samples were then sent to the University of Bristol, where they are currently being identified to species, life-cycle stage, sex, mapped by location of origin and examined for the presence of pathogens. All ticks of the same species found on any one dog have been pooled for analysis.
2 Symptoms of babesiosis can range from mild to severe and include lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, anemia, pale gums, an enlarged abdomen, weight loss and jaundice.
3 On the 25th January 2012, the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol published the findings of a survey of pet dogs in Scotland, England and Wales, which showed that, at 0.5% or 481 infected ticks per 100,000 dogs, the prevalence of ticks infected with Lyme disease in the dog population may be much higher than previously thought. Consequently, it was concluded that the percentage of ticks in the UK infected with Lyme borreliosis and the corresponding risk to humans is also likely to be much higher than previously believed:
4 The research for MSD Animal Health was carried out online by Censuswide between 14/ 04 / 2015 and 17 / 04 / 2015 amongst a panel resulting in 1006 respondents UK dog owners. All research conducted adheres to the MRS Codes of Conduct (2010) in the UK and ICC/ESOMAR World Research Guidelines. Censuswide is registered with the Information Commissioner's Office and is fully compliant with the Data Protection Act (1998).
Survey national results as follows;

  • 47% of dog owners don’t know that ticks can transmit diseases to both dogs and humans
  • 54% of dog owners don’t know that Lyme disease affects both dogs and humans
  • Lungworm (33%) and Fleas (28%) are the parasites dog owners are most worried about infecting their dogs. Ticks are fourth (11%)
  • 12% of dog owners aren’t worried about parasites infecting their dog
  • 38% of dog owners said their dog has been bitten by a tick before (9% say on a regular, annual basis).
  • 18% of dog owners said their vet has once spotted a tick on their dog during a veterinary examination that they had not realised was there.
  • 24% of dog owners never or very rarely use vet recommended treatment to prevent ticks on their dog.
5 Some veterinary surgeries and pet shops sell inexpensive tick removal devices which may be useful if spending time in areas where there are ticks.