Waging the Lyme Disease Battle
The 9-month-old retriever lay like a limp rag at the foot of his worried owner. Dr. Douglas Hammer of Norwood Park Animal Hospital in Norridge, Illinois, knew something was wrong. Goldens typically are exuberant, inquisitive, and full of life. This patient did not act like any pup Dr. Hammer had ever examined.
As the owner talked about the dog, he mentioned that the dog had lived in Wisconsin 6 months earlier. Dr. Hammer immediately ordered a test, and his suspicions were confirmed: Lyme disease. “After a course of antibiotics, the dog was running, jumping, playing—doing all the things dogs do,” says Dr. Hammer.
Why had the mention of Wisconsin triggered the veterinarian’s suspicions? “The incidence of Lyme disease is heavily geographically related,” says Dr. Hammer. “Any place you have white-tailed deer, and the deer tick, you have Lyme disease.” In addition to Wisconsin and other upper north-central states, Lyme disease is most prevalent in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic United States as well as several counties in northwestern California.
THE HIDDEN ENEMY
Lyme disease was named in 1977 when a large concentration of children developed arthritis in and around Lyme, Connecticut. Researchers discovered that Lyme disease is transmitted to humans and animals by the bite of infected deer ticks. The disease is spread by the black-legged tick in the northeastern and north-central United States, while on the Pacific Coast Lyme disease is transmitted by the western black-legged tick.
Deer ticks are much smaller than common dog ticks. They are about the size of a pinhead, which makes them much more difficult to detect. Deer ticks are found in areas that have high deer populations and also in rodent colonies. Ticks transmit disease when they insert their mouths into a host animal’s or person’s skin and feed on their blood. The black-legged tick typically must feed for 2 or more days before passing on infection.
In most Lyme-prone areas, the disease usually is transmitted from April to October. During winter months, most ticks are frozen or killed by cold weather. There are exceptions, however. “Lyme disease potentially could be transmitted during winter if the ticks were present on mice in a warm place such as a barn,” warns Dr. Hammer.
FIELDS OF DANGER
Dogs and cats typically pick up ticks when they roam in areas such as fields and forests that provide the damp, overgrown atmosphere in which these parasites thrive. “In these areas, it can be a constant battle to keep ticks off your pet,” says Dr. Hammer. While Lyme disease has been documented in cats, it is rare, possibly because cats groom the ticks off themselves before the ticks have a chance to transmit the disease.
In Lyme-endemic areas of the country, the number of cases in both people and animals has risen considerably in recent years. “Today, one-quarter of the dogs we see in our practice have been exposed to Lyme disease as opposed to about 10% several years ago,” says Dr. Lawrence Wolf of Willingboro Veterinary Clinic in Willingboro, New Jersey.
Signs of trouble in pets are similar to the symptoms in humans. Sudden lameness is one of the most common. Dr. Wolf tells us that pets may also have a fever of 103 to 105 degrees, act mopey, and not want to eat. More serious complications are also possible, such as heart disorders, kidney damage or failure, or neurological symptoms such as aggression, confusion, and seizures. Fortunately, these are rare.
“If symptoms of Lyme disease do occur, they often do not appear until 3 to 4 months after exposure,” Dr. Wolf says. “If you find a tick on your pet and suddenly he begins acting sick, he likely was infected by a different tick months earlier.”
While Lyme disease often results in long-term health problems such as chronic arthritis for humans, thankfully, most pets recover quickly following treatment with antibiotics. Dr. Wolf recommends that dogs be monitored for life. “If a dog has tested positive for Lyme disease, we run tests every year to make sure there are no lasting problems,” he says. “Only one in four dogs completely shakes Lyme disease, but most do not have any more symptoms.”
WAGING THE WAR ON TICKS
“Tick control of the environment and the pet year-round is essential in preventing Lyme disease,” stresses Dr. Wolf. Fortunately, a number of easy-to-administer monthly medications are available to protect your pet from this parasite. Your veterinarian can recommend a product that will suit your needs best. In dogs, vaccination against Lyme disease is also an option.
Controlling ticks in the environment is equally important. Owners should keep grassy areas around their home mowed and remove woodpiles that could provide a breeding ground for ticks. Some pet owners also choose to spray insecticides in the yard that specifically battle ticks.
The bad news is that we have not won the battle against Lyme disease yet; the condition continues to be a growing health problem for both people and pets. The good news, though, is that it may be easily prevented in your pet through tick control and vaccination. And even if your pet becomes infected, the chances for recovery are high. Next time you visit your veterinarian, make sure you formulate a battle plan together to keep your pet safe from the hazards of Lyme disease.
TIPS FOR TICK REMOVAL
If you do find a tick on your pet, it is important that you remove it properly. Here’s what not to do:
- Do not crush, puncture, or squeeze the tick.
- Do not apply petroleum jelly, nail polish, or alcohol to the tick.
- Do not attempt to burn the tick with a match, lit cigarette, or hot nail.
Here’s how to remove a tick the right way: Carefully place fine-point tweezers around the tick’s mouth where it is connected to the pet’s skin, and gently pull up until the tick detaches. Disinfect the bite site and tweezers, and wash your hands thoroughly. Never use bare hands to remove a tick or you risk possible infection. Place the tick in a small container and label the container with the date, name and type of your pet, as well as your name, address, and phone number. Call your veterinarian to ask if he or she recommends the tick be tested.
VIGILANCE IS VITAL
Pet owners who live in areas where deer ticks thrive should be vigilant about checking their pets for ticks after they’ve been outside. If you notice any of these symptoms in your pet, give your veterinarian a call.
- Loss of appetite
- Unusual breathing (cats)