Warmer weather means tick season — and the diseases that ticks transmit. Lyme disease is one of the most common, affecting humans, dogs and horses.
In Lyme disease, ticks become infected with a bacteria called Borrelia Burgdorferi by feeding on infected mice and other small animals. When an infected tick bites other animals such as your dog, it can transmit the disease. The deer tick (also known as the blacklegged tick) is the most common culprit.
A frequent symptom of Lyme disease in dogs is a recurrent lameness. Other signs include fever, lethargy, decreased appetite, swollen and painful joints, and swollen lymph nodes. Still, the biggest problem is that visible signs are quite rare.
“Up to 95 percent of dogs infected with the bacteria do not develop symptoms,” says veterinarian Mark Pessin, director of Fairview Veterinary Hospital in Fairport. “So it’s very important to have your pet tested every year.”
It’s especially vital because dogs with Lyme disease can develop kidney problems. These dogs may experience symptoms such as vomiting and increased thirst and urination. Once a dog becomes this sick, the disease is often fatal.
Dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors, in the woods, brush areas and tall-grass areas are more at risk for being bitten by ticks. However, ticks can be brought into your own yards by other wild animals as well. The deer tick is most common along the Mid-Atlantic and New England coastal states, northeastern states and the upper Midwest, but it can be found anywhere in the country.
Diagnosing Lyme disease can be challenging. Infections usually occur during tick season, which is spring to early fall, but the time between infection and the appearance of symptoms can be as long as two to five months. A diagnosis can be even more confusing because a positive result on a Lyme disease test does not always indicate active infection. So a diagnosis is made by factoring in a history of tick exposure, a positive Lyme disease test, other blood tests, urinalysis and clinical signs such as lameness.
“Your veterinarian can determine if your dog needs to be treated or not,” Pessin explains.
Antibiotics are used to treat Lyme disease. When the clinical signs are lameness, a rapid improvement is expected usually within a few days. Treatment typically lasts three to four weeks. If kidney disease is present, a longer course of antibiotics and additional medications are usually needed.
Tick control is the key to preventing Lyme disease. Check your dog daily and remove all ticks that are found. Ticks must feed for at least 12 hours on your dog to transmit disease, so the faster you remove the ticks, the better chance of stopping disease transmission.
Your veterinarian can recommend several products that can prevent tick attachment in the first place. Products include spot-on treatments, sprays and collars. Make sure you follow all veterinarian recommendations carefully when using these products.
Keep grass and brush trimmed in your yard and in areas where ticks are a problem. You can also consider treating your yard for ticks. It may seem like a hassle, but it’s nothing compared to having to treat your pet for a potentially fatal disease.