May 9, 2010
I am old enough that 1985 doesn’t seem all that long ago. That is when Lyme disease was first reported in Lyme Connecticut. Since that time, the disease has been recognized in all fifty states, so it certainly isn’t just a Northeast problem. The reason for the increase in the number of reported cases of Lyme disease has to do with human encroachment into tick habitats as well as increased testing. So, the disease is spreading and we have better ways of diagnosing it.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia Burgdorferi. I like saying that over and over. It is carried from animal to animal or from animal to human through the Ixodes species of tick. This tick is sometimes referred to as the Lyme tick or deer tick and is quite a bit smaller than the typical dog tick. Here is the good news: the tick must feed for at least 40 hours before it can actually transmit the B. Burgdorferi. Infection peaks after 48-52 hours of attachment. So, if you find a tick on your pet or on yourself, and you remove it right away (with tweezers), you have probably thwarted any Lyme infection. The hard part is finding a tiny tick on your dog.
When people contract Lyme disease they usually exhibit a “bull’s eye” rash where the tick was attached. Dogs do not do this. Instead, a dog might not show signs for two to six months. Actually only a small percentage of dogs show signs at all, but when they do, the symptoms can be vague. They include lameness, fever, lethargy and enlarged lymph nodes. More serious symptoms in dogs include swollen joints, muscle pain, kidney failure and rarely heart problems, paralysis or seizures.
Your veterinarian can run a test for Lyme disease right in his or her office and it only takes about 15 minutes. If your dog is showing symptoms and tests positive for Lyme disease, he or she will need to be given an antibiotic for a month. Unfortunately, this rarely completely clears the infection. So, even if your dog responds well, and is apparently cured by the antibiotic, he may still test positive for Lyme disease forever. Other dogs test positive and have never had any symptoms. There is still much debate about whether these dogs should be treated. It probably doesn’t hurt to treat them, but we don’t know if it helps. Just like the sick dog who was treated, he or she may also test positive forever.
Because of this permanent state of infection, dogs may exhibit signs of Lyme disease months or years after the original diagnosis. It is a good idea to monitor any Lyme positive dog for kidney function since Lyme disease that gets to the kidneys can result in devastating kidney failure that does not respond to treatment. This can be done with a yearly blood and urine test.
As usual, prevention is the best medicine when it comes to Lyme disease. The very best method of prevention is tick control and tick removal. The ticks live on brush, tall grasses and fallen leaves. Therefore you should keep your dog’s yard trimmed up and be sure to remove dead leaves and limbs. If your pet spends time in the woods around here, you need to use a spot-on or spray treatment that controls ticks or a Preventic collar. Be absolutely sure to use a product that your veterinarian has approved because most of the over-the-counter products that claim they control ticks ,quite simply, don’t do a good enough job to protect your pet from Lyme disease! These over-the-counter products can also be dangerous to other small pets, like cats, in your household. (See previous article “Don’t Freak About Your Pet’s Flea Control”)
When your dog comes in from a day of fun, run your hands over his body to feel for ticks paying special attention to the head, ears and between toes. Do this again the next day because the ticks will get larger as they feed and become easier to find. Use tweezers to remove the tick and it’s head from your dog’s skin. If you feel uncomfortable doing this, have your veterinarian do it. DO NOT use bare hands to remove ticks! You don’t want the tick to bite you!
Finally, dogs that are high risk for Lyme disease can be vaccinated. I currently recommend that any dog who travels to the Northeast part of our country be vaccinated because the Ixodes ticks there are nearly all infected and they are extremely common there. But, because the disease and the Ixodes ticks are much less prevalent here, not every Lowcountry dog needs this vaccine, especially if you can prevent and remove ticks promptly, so be sure to have this discussion with your veterinarian.