Virtually every pet owner in southern Africa knows to be on the look out for symptoms of tick bite fever, especially in dogs. Known as Biliary, the dog will go off food, be listless, tired and have a fever (with later symptoms showing as pale gums). It is caused by a tiny parasite (Babesia canis) which is introduced into the body by a tick bite. This parasite then enters and destroys red blood cells. If not treated, this can be fatal and affects dogs, cats and horses.
We had a Boerebull dog called Butch (pic) many years ago, who would sit on my car bonnet the moment he was a bit ill. That was my signal to take him straight to the vet and although he was never showing outward symptoms of biliary, the vet always confirmed the diagnosis. Clever dog.
Ticks are small, blood-sucking bugs and they also like to feed on humans. However, tick bite fever in Southern Africa is not as serious as the sickness caused by American ticks, even though symptoms can feel quite severe to the sufferer.
Ticks can range in size from as small as a pin’s head to as large as a pencil eraser. Ticks have eight legs and are arachnids, which means they are related to spiders. They can range in colour from shades of brown to reddish brown to grey and black and as they take in blood, become larger and larger.
How to Prevent a Bite
To prevent tick bite fever, wear long trousers if walking through the bush or through fields. Ticks don’t jump but will tag onto you as you brush past. Smearing petroleum jelly onto lower legs will also prevent them from latching onto you, but know you will collect dust and be extremely grubby at the end of your walk! Always check yourself very thoroughly as ticks like to find warm, damp places like underarms and groin area, to settle in for a feed.
When we were building our bush home in Royal Jozini, we sat on the side of the Lebombo Moutains with the architect one hot sunny day under the shade of a maroela tree. As we were pouring over the plans, we mentioned to him that we should inspect ourselves for ticks later – and lo and behold, right then and there, crawled a little red tick right across the middle of the plan.
How to remove a tick
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
- Dispose of a live tick by either
a. submersing it in alcohol
b. placing it in a sealed bag/container
c. wrapping it tightly in tape
d. or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.
Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible–not wait for it to detach itself.
Was it a tick that bit me?
Perhaps you didn’t find the tick itself but you have a bite mark so here is how to identify if it was a tick that bit you.
- The black mark at the site of the tick bite is called an eschar, or a tache noir and looks like a small ulcer (2-5mm in diameter) with a black centre.
- It may look something like a spider bite.
- The eschars can be single or multiple and can sometimes be very difficult to find.
- The eschar usually appears once the fever appears, as does the headache and malaise (general feeling of ill-health). Lymph nodes near the eschar may be enlarged.
Severity of illness can vary considerably but tick bite fever can be treated with antibiotics
If you develop any of the symptoms within several weeks of removing a tick, see your doctor. Be sure to tell the doctor when the bite occurred, and where you were. The symptoms could be quite similar to malaria, so always double check with your doctor (except malaria won’t leave a bite mark)
Where there are any animals, be they wild or domesticated, there are always ticks around, so do inspect yourself if you take a walk in the bush. Watch in wonder as the Egrets hang around cattle and game to catch insects that are disturbed as they move through the grass and watch the Oxpeckers on the animals themselves, keeping them clean of ticks
– and if you fancy a break in the bush where there is no malaria, do visit Royal Jozini Big 6 Estate in Swaziland.