Can my pet get Lyme disease?
At this time of year, many people and their pets are out on the trails and enjoying the warmer weather. During the warmer seasons in Canada, many insects that carry transmittable diseases are active, including ticks, who can be active at 4C or warmer. For this reason, May is national Lyme disease awareness month, and we asked our veterinary internal medicine team to give us some tips on preventing and treating Lyme disease.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted by an infected tick when they bite a host such as an animal or human. There are four known species of ticks that transmit Lyme disease, but the most common type is the deer tick (lxodes scapularis). Both dogs and humans are quite susceptible to Lyme disease; natural infections of cats have never been reported.
Are there ticks in BC that carry Lyme disease?
Deer ticks are distributed through the Midwest and eastern United States, as well as throughout Canada, with the highest proportion in Ontario. In B.C., less than one percent of ticks tested carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but the disease is occasionally seen, and it is important to know the symptoms.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
A tick will need to be on your dog for about 12 – 24 hours before Lyme disease is transmitted. This is why it’s important to check for ticks regularly after walking outdoors.
Once the bacterium enters the bloodstream, it enters different parts of your dog’s body, such as joints and kidneys. Symptoms include swollen joints & generalized stiffness, discomfort or pain, lameness, fever, loss of appetite and reduced energy.
The “silent killer” is the Lyme organism and antibodies produced after exposure, which can damage the filter in the kidneys. The impact of this form of the disease on the kidneys can easily go unnoticed until it is too late. If your vet determines that the kidneys have been affected, this can be treated and monitored before severe renal problems arise. Serious cardiac and neurological effects can also occur.
It can sometimes be hard to diagnose Lyme disease and can be difficult to treat in some cases. This is where an internal medicine specialist, like our team at BBVSH, might be utilized.
What can my vet do to diagnose Lyme disease in my pet?
Animals with lameness, swollen joints, and fever are suspected of having Lyme disease, although other diseases may also cause these symptoms.
There are a few blood tests that may be used for confirmation. The first is an antibody test that your veterinarian can perform in the clinic using a special test kit. This test detects the presence of antibodies created by exposure to the organism. It is recommended to test no earlier than four weeks after a tick bite. Some dogs that have been infected for long periods of time may no longer have enough antibodies present to be detected by the test.
Is there a treatment for Lyme disease?
Yes, because Lyme disease is caused by spirochete bacterium, it can be treated with antibiotics. The antibiotic of choice is Doxycycline or Amoxicillin. Treatment usually lasts for four weeks.
Occasionally, the initial infection will recur if not treated long enough, or the pet can become re-infected by being bitten by another infected tick.
It should be noted, however, the organism that causes Lyme disease is very good at hiding and while treatment is typically successful in eliminating clinical signs, dogs that test positive for Lyme disease will remain positive for years, if not forever. If your dog tests positive but is not sick, your veterinarian will tell you whether they recommend treatment at that time.
How do I prevent Lyme disease in my dog?
Ticks don’t jump or fly—they can only crawl. They get onto their host by waiting at the tips of vegetation. When an animal or person brushes against a bush, for example, the tick quickly grabs on and then crawls to find a place to bite. Ticks will often be found in folds of skin, in or behind the ears, or tucked into other dark, warm places on their host.
The key to prevention is limiting your dog’s exposure to ticks. Keeping animals from thick underbrush reduces their exposure to ticks. Dogs should be kept on trails when walking near wooded or tall grass areas.
Inspect your pets and yourself daily for ticks. After walks through the woods or grassy settings, check yourself and your animal for ticks. When inspecting your dog for ticks, look especially on the feet (and between toes), on lips, around eyes, ears (and inside ears), near the anus, and under the tail.
Use tick preventative products. There are many products available that can kill ticks and prevent disease transmission. The most effective products are prescriptions that are available through your family veterinarian. Many of these products are administered monthly and are a convenient method of control for these external parasites.
Vaccinate against Lyme disease. Vaccination is recommended for pets that live in areas where Lyme disease is common, or that travel to areas where Lyme disease is prevalent. This vaccine is initially given twice, at two to four-week intervals. Annual revaccination is necessary to maintain your dog’s immunity.
The decision to vaccinate against Lyme disease can be discussed with your veterinarian based on your dog’s lifestyle and individual risk assessment.
NOTE: Lyme disease isn’t the only thing ticks can carry – other diseases like Rock Mountain spotted fever and anaplasmosis can be contracted through ticks. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of checking for ticks regularly after walking outdoors!
What if I find a tick on my pet?
Remove ticks immediately. The quicker you find them, the less likely your pet will be to contract a secondary illness related to tick bites. Invest in a pair of fine tweezers designed to remove ticks. If you leave a part of the tick embedded in the skin of the host, it can become infected. If you are unable to safely remove a tick, consult with a veterinarian.
For tips on tick removal, check out these links:
- American Lyme Disease Foundation: https://aldf.com/#all-about-ticks
- American Kennel Club: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/how-to-remove-tick-from-dog/