Dogs, Lyme Disease and Ticks: What You Need to Know
By: Dr. Amanda Landis-Hanna
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Happy Fall! Halloween is upon us, with Thanksgiving right around the corner. In Virginia the leaves are changing and falling, and the air is crisp…perfect weather for a hike. But it is also perfect weather for ticks, and tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease.
A lot of people have heard about Lyme disease due to its increasing rate of frequency both in humans and in dogs. As our populations have become increasingly suburban, many human dwellings have begun to encroach on wooded lands, which previously held wildlife such as deer. This wildlife is often the source of the ticks that carry infection, but ticks can live a long time in trees, scrubs, and long grasses waiting for the right host to come along.
Ticks are external parasites. They can feed from a number of hosts, and they can sense motion and heat, allowing them to find their next meal. With Lyme disease, the tick is the carrier of the actual disease. The disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. The bacteria, and infected ticks, have been spreading over the last decade. What formerly was a disease only found in the northeast has now been found in most of the continental United States. The blacklegged tick (also known as the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis) spreads the disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States. The western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast. Immature or mature adult ticks can spread Lyme disease, so prevention of a tick bite is vital.
Borrelia burgdorferi is transmitted through a tick bite to the host. Dogs, humans, and other species are all at risk for the disease. A tick must be attached for a prolonged period of time to allow Borrelia burgdorferi to pass into the body of the host. For this reason, prevention of a bite, or quickly removing a tick after it has attached, may help prevent the majority of Lyme disease infections. Great resources are available for humans on the CDC Website at http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/. Here we will focus mostly on dogs.
Dogs are susceptible to Lyme disease, which can cause fever, lameness, lethargy, and organ failure. If left untreated, Lyme disease can also cause death. Unfortunately, dog symptoms are variable, and often intermittent, meaning it can be difficult for the pet parent to identify the problem. Many pet parents (myself included) have taken a “wait-and-see” approach to the occasional illness, but in the case of Lyme disease, the problem may appear to come and go. Unfortunately, the bacterium will not cure itself, and damage is occurring throughout this period.
In dogs, a number of tests are available to help diagnose Lyme disease. Many veterinary hospitals carry a quick blood test to screen for exposure. If exposure is diagnosed, follow up testing, such as a Lyme C6 test may be performed to track how much exposure and to help adjust therapies.
Treatment for Lyme disease generally starts with antibiotic therapy, such as doxycycline. Antibiotics are often needed for a prolonged period of time, and more than one round of treatment may be needed. Borrelia burgdorferi can attack the kidneys, needing more advanced treatments or diuresis to try to limit permanent kidney damage. Borrelia burgdorferi may also cause severe inflammation in the joints, causing joint swelling, inflammation, degenerative joint disease, or arthritis. Lyme is often a very painful condition, needing advanced treatments for pain and weakness. Physical therapy and acupuncture have also been used to help treat the condition.
Prevention is truly key with Lyme disease. Flea and tick prevention should be used year-round to prevent tick attachment. Always check your pet thoroughly after exercise or time in shady wooded areas. Ticks prefer areas of less fur often, such as the groin, ears, eyes, and anus.
A vaccine is available for Lyme disease, and should be discussed with your veterinarian if your dog is exposed to many ticks or you live in an endemic area. In Virginia, Lyme disease appears permanent at this point. For my dog Sophie, she has high exposure, so we vaccinate her, but evaluate her risk factors every year. The vaccine is not a requirement, however it can help some dogs from developing some of the worst symptoms.
So get out and play in the leaves, but make sure that you check for ticks afterwards! And HAPPY HOWL-O-WEEN!