Ticks! My first reaction is EWWW! Even as a Licensed veterinary technician, bugs, worms, and other creepy crawly things give me the heebie-jeebies. The thought of my pets dragging these little critters into my home is close to a nightmare for me. My pets sleep in my bed, on my head, and all over my house. But I can also bring in little hitchhikers and my clothes and body, in turn allowing them to infect my pets.
There are a few misconceptions about ticks that should be addressed. Although there are very effective repellants and insecticides that kill ticks, Mother Nature is not very good at controlling the tick population on her own. Most believe that once there is a good winter’s frost on the ground ticks are killed and the risk of meeting this 8-legged foe is eliminated. But ticks are robust little suckers and can remain alive in freezing temperatures and conditions, thus making it possible to acquire Lyme disease even when we are least expecting it.
Numerous experts have been warning of high tick populations this summer. In fact, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), a U.K.-based veterinary charity, found a whopping 560% rise in Lyme Disease in the last six years. But the growth of ticks carrying Lyme Disease is not isolated to our British neighbors across the pond. In fact, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Entomology, show that half of all U.S. counties now have tick populations that carry the disease—a 320% increase since the 1990s.
So why are we seeing these insane increases? There are a couple of theories.
PDSA veterinarians and believe global warming—generally higher temperatures and fewer “hard freezes”—is partially to blame for the increase in tick populations. Along with the increase in tick populations due to warming, we are spending more time outdoors in tick infested areas. In addition, medical advances in veterinary medicine and an uptick in routine testing for the disease may be contributing to more reported cases of Lyme Disease in dogs in both the U.K. and the U.S.
Shortly after I moved to the East Coast, my own dog was diagnosed with Lyme disease after routine bloodwork and heartworm screening. He was asymptomatic, and as far as I could remember I never removed a tick from his body.
In the U.S. the majority of dogs are screened for heartworm disease using a simple “snap” test by Idexx Labs, or something similar. These tests are now capable of detecting antibodies for six vector-borne diseases, Lyme among them. In my experience running these tests, nearly every dog we diagnosed with Lyme disease (or other vector borne disease) had no clinical signs. It is still difficult to know if dogs are actually suffering from a current infection of the disease or if the dog was infected and able to naturally fight off the infection. Additional tests can be submitted, but at an additional financial cost.
Treatment of Lyme disease has generally been easy, if the disease is caught in its early stages. Doxycycline, a tetracycline antibiotic, is generally prescribed for 30 days of treatment, or longer depending on the severity of the infection. Additional medications may also be used to treat other symptoms as needed. The majority of dogs will tolerate the antibiotics and the infection will clear. But it is still possible that for the next few years (or subsequent blood tests) the dog will continue to test positive for Lyme disease, as the snap test is reacting to antibodies in the bloodstream.
So what is the best solution to reduce the chance your pet will become a statistic? Using your flea/tick preventative year round is a start. Also, follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for annual bloodwork/test and check your dog daily for ticks.