With springtime comes many outdoor activities. We are seeing people snap photos of their morel mushrooms, play outdoors sports, do yard work, and of course, head out into the great outdoors to spend time with their pets. Along with all of these outdoor activities we need to be aware and attentive to the danger of wood ticks during the springtime. Numerous people and pets are being diagnosed with tick borne diseases. My focus this month will be on some important information about ticks and how to protect yourself and your pets.
Growing up on an Iowa farm, our dog had more ticks than I could count on any given day. It was a job to check the dog over daily and remove any ticks that were found. The number of products available back in the 70’s to use as prevention was limited and so every pet and person got a good tick check at the end of the day. We never heard about Lyme Disease or Erlichiosis in those days. We just knew that one large tick leads to many baby ticks and did not want that to happen so we flushed the ticks or squashed them. Today between social media, television, friendly conversations, etc., it is rare not to find some new information about tick diseases or hear about another person diagnosed with a tick borne disease. These diseases are in every state except Hawaii. It is important to educate yourself on the best way to protect your family and your pets.
I first want to discuss Lyme disease in dogs. Most people are familiar with Lyme disease and know that a very small deer tick transmits this disease to its host. What is not talked about is that mice, turkeys, birds are also hosts for the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi that deer tick transmit. Therefore any person could be at risk for contacting Lyme disease no matter where they live or play. Deer ticks also have a very active stage in the fall. This is not common knowledge and therefore people that hunt and hike in the fall are not protecting themselves.
Dogs have some great advantages over humans when it comes to protecting themselves against Lyme disease. There are vaccines that can protect our canine friends from Lyme disease and if vaccinated prior to exposure they have greater than 95% success. The first time it is given there is a series of 2 vaccinations and then it is an annual shot after that. Puppies can be vaccinated as young as 12 weeks of age. Discuss the risk your pet may have to Lyme disease with your veterinarian and see if you should start this immunization today.
We have had flea and tick products for many years that when applied topically would prevent many ticks from attaching and taking a blood meal. Then about 3 years ago some oral products came to the market that gave 100% body coverage but do require a bite for a blood meal. So the debate still continues, bite or no bite, which is better. I believe that both products when used properly and used 9-10 months out of the year, can do a great job at preventing tick infestations. Now you will notice that I suggested 9-10 months out of the year. In Madison County, we have seen some extremely mild winters where we get minimal snow and often have days during December – February where we are above freezing. It has been discovered that ticks will still be out “questing” for their host even at freezing temperatures if the ground is not covered with snow. For that reason, you must consider protecting your pet longer and/or consider year round prevention. Many infections of Lyme Disease will not be discovered until 4-6 months after the tick bite. This is related to the Borrelia life cycle once it is injected into the host. Dogs do not get a bullseye skin rash so the first indication your dog has been infected may be fever, extreme joint pain, lethargy, and no appetite. Exposure to Lyme disease can be diagnosed with a simple laboratory test done in the clinic. These tests can also indicate exposure to Erlichiosis and Anaplasmosis which are two other tick borne diseases. We have been seeing many positive test results with Erlichiosis and last month I had my first positive Anaplasmosis in a dog that moved here from Wisconsin. The owner indicated 4 years ago the dog was ill and treated for Anaplasmosis. It was still positive when it presented to Winterset Veterinary Center for a routine screening. The dog is no longer clinically ill but may always be positive on the screening test. Anaplasmosis has often been considered a disease of the South, but this dog had never left Wisconsin.
Erlichiosis and Anaplasmosis both cause similar symptoms to Lyme’s disease. We do not have any vaccines to protect against these two diseases, so your best protection would be tick control and checking for ticks at the end of the day. We do not know how long a tick must be attached to transmit these organisms. For Borrelia that transmits Lyme Disease we know it is more then 24 hours, but the research is still ongoing for the other two diseases. Researchers know it is quicker than Borrelia but is it 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc hours we still do not know. We are also aware that once positive for any one of these tick borne diseases, treatment or no treatment, they will most likely remain positive for the rest of their life. There is concern now that some of our joint disease issues may stem from a chronic (long term) infection of tick borne diseases. These organisms can also infect the kidney which can be detrimental as the pet ages. It has been shown that infection with Erlichiosis can produce clinical symptoms much faster than Lyme Disease. Therefore it is important to remove ticks quickly to prevent transmission of the bacteria.
Lyme Disease was first diagnosed in Lyme, Connecticut in the mid 1970’s and a scientist, Willy Burgdorfer, in 1981 made the connection between deer tick and the disease. The first dog case of Lyme disease in Madison County was diagnosed by Dr. Jim at Winterset Veterinary Center in 1989. Since that time cases have been increasing in humans and animals. This link gives information about Lyme Disease: History of Lyme Disease | Bay Area Lyme Foundation
The following link indicates that Erlichiosis has now been discovered in Minnesota and Wisconsin in humans and will only be a matter of time before Iowa is on the map. We are finding Erlichiosis in Iowa dogs so I am certain it will be diagnosed in humans very soon.
If we know a dog has any one of these tick borne diseases the use of antibiotics can knock down the clinical symptoms. The problem is knowing how long to treat and if the bacteria will actually be cleared from the body. Studies have shown that even with treatment the organism may remain in the body and surface at times of stress such as pregnancy or treatment with immunosuppressive medications. This is what makes these diseases such a mystery to treat. We are still learning new information daily on the life cycle of these tick borne diseases.
So if you are headed out to enjoy the great outdoors, please take precautions not only for your pet but yourself as well. This is the time of year when ticks are out in full force and it only takes one tick to start a long illness that may always plague you or your pet.
Do not take a chance on this because it is a life changing disease and anyone who has contacted it will tell you……I wish I would have known then what I know now about these tick borne diseases. Their lives will never be the same. Learn from their words of wisdom and take all the precautions you can and protect your pets with vaccinations, flea and tick products, and regular tick checks.