Britain’s soaring deer population is fuelling the growing problem of Lyme disease, scientists have warned.
At the turn of the century there were only around 250 reported cases of lyme disease in the UK each year, but now the NHS says the figure is closer to 3,000 and some charities claim the actual number could be as high as 45,000.
The disease is transmitted through ticks which feed on deer, and then can be picked up by dogs and their owners when they walk through woodland.
The British deer population now stands at around 1.5 million, the highest level it has been for 1,000 years, with numbers doubling since 1999. Urban foxes and domestic cats are also often targeted by ticks and can spread disease.
Professor Richard Wall, of the University of Bristol, said: “The primary problem is deer, and anywhere that you have lots of deer, you get lots of ticks. The females feed on the deer and then produce lots of eggs.
“Dog owners should be careful if the are walking their pets in areas where deer are present and make sure they are treated with anti-tick treatments and avoid long grass.”
Deer populations have been steadily increasing since the 1963 Deer Act stopped the animals from being treated as vermin, and now hunters require a licence. They also have no natural predators, such as lynx or wolves.
Lyme disease can be a serious health problem for both humans and dogs, leading to heart failure, meningitis, memory problems, paralysis, and even death.
The problem is made worse by owners taking their pets abroad, because Lyme disease is more common in ticks on the continent. Around two per cent of ticks now carry the pathogen which causes Lyme disease compared to 0.5 per cent in 2015. Ticks can also infect dogs with the potentially fatal disease Canine Babesiosis which can also cause jaundice and anaemia.
Vets are calling on the government to introduce regulations which force pet owners to use anti-tick treatments when travelling abroad. Studies show that around three quarters of dogs returning from the continent are carrying ticks.
Wildlife expert Chris Packham said: “As someone who has seen the impact of Lyme Disease on people with the illness and also being aware of the very widespread threat of tick-borne diseases like Canine Babesiosis across the Channel in France, I really want people to get behind the campaign to bring back mandatory tick treatment for dogs travelling abroad to reduce the risk of the further spread of these horrible, debilitating and potentially dangerous diseases to the UK.
“Whether you walk your dogs in urban parkland, woodland, heathland or open fields, ticks present a risk to our pets’ health and ourselves.”
What is Lyme disease?
The call came at the start of Tick Awareness Month, which aims to highlight the problem, and encourage pet owners to be more vigilant. Latest results from The Big Tick Project, the largest ever veterinary study of ticks, found that just under one three dogs is carrying a tick at any one time.
Supported by more than 1200 veterinary practices across the country in conjunction with MSD Animal Health, the Big Tick Project received more than 6000 ticks from a total of 12,096 dogs examined and checked for ticks by each participating veterinary practice.
Shropshire vet Dr Natalie Morris said: “Having seen an increase in tick numbers in the area I have worked since qualifying since 2013, this is something of real concern to myself, colleagues, our clients and their pets.
“The Brexit negotiations provide an opportunity to amend the Pet Travel Scheme but we feel we have to call on the Government to act now before it is too late.
“The results of the Big Tick Project showing that many of the dogs returning to the UK were carrying a tick, only emphasises the risk to our shores from new, exotic tick-borne disease.
“ With an election looming we want protecting UK pets and borders against ticks to be on the agenda for the new Government team at DEFRA as after June 8th they start to reshape animal health policy in the UK in the build up to Brexit.”
Q&A | How to avoid ticks and Lyme disease