As spring arrives in many parts of the world, people come out of “hibernation” and begin to enjoy outdoor activities. Along with enjoying the outdoors, comes the risk of exposure to ticks and Lyme disease.
Ticks are tiny parasites that attach themselves to mammals and birds and can transmit disease to the animals that they attach to. In North America, the tick responsible for transmitting Lyme disease is the Blacklegged tick, more commonly known as the deer tick. However, in other regions of the world, other tick species have been known to spread Lyme disease.
It’s not actually the tick that causes the disease (the tick transmits it), it is Borrelia species bacteria that live in the gut of ticks that causes disease. In different regions of the world, different species of this bacteria cause Lyme disease. Currently, at least 14 different types of bacteria cause Lyme disease worldwide.
Deer ticks have four life stages: egg, larvae, nymph, and adult. It is the nymph and adult stages that are a concern for disease transmission. Nymphs are the size of a poppy seed – because of this, many people do not see them on themselves or their pet and do not remember being bitten.
Signs of Lyme disease
Infected pets can have vague signs of disease. Many pets do not show outward signs of illness or can show signs that are difficult to recognize or may be mistaken for other diseases. Signs such as lethargy, lameness, fever, or loss of appetite are common and make diagnosis difficult. The lameness can occur suddenly as affected joints become swollen, usually resolves quickly, and may shift from one leg to another. This is known as ‘shifting leg lameness’. A more serious concern can be sudden kidney failure. The vague signs are why regular Lyme disease testing for your pet is so important, especially if your pet has not had tick preventives in the past.
If your pet tests positive for Lyme disease, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options with you based on the presence and signs of illness.
Prevention of Lyme disease
If your pet lives in an area that is a hotspot for Lyme disease, a good tick control program is the best prevention. Avoid areas where ticks are known to live (tall grass, wooded areas, and meadows) especially in the spring and summer. But be aware that adult deer ticks are active throughout the fall and winter months if the temperature is at or above 39⁰F or 4⁰C. Thoroughly check your pet carefully for ticks after he or she goes in areas where ticks may be. Be sure to let your veterinarian know about any travel plans you have – the area you reside in may be not be a Lyme disease hotspot, but the area you are travelling to may be.
Vaccines for Lyme disease are available in North America and other parts of the world that have high incidence rates. Your veterinarian may recommended the Lyme disease vaccine for your dog if you live in an area where Lyme disease is endemic, or if your dog is normally in an environment where ticks may be widespread. Discuss vaccination options with your veterinarian.
Transmission to People
While there is no evidence that pets can transmit Lyme disease to people, if you (or your pet) frequent areas that are good tick habitat (tall grass, meadows, and wooded areas), you are at risk of acquiring Lyme disease either directly from the environment, or from your pet. Protect yourself by tucking your pants into your socks, use a tick repellent that contains 20% or more DEET, use products that contain permethrin* on your clothing (pre-treated clothing is available), after frequenting an area with ticks check yourself and your clothing carefully, bathe or shower in hot water to wash off and find ticks that may be on you, check your pets (ticks can leave your pet and attach to you later on – and vice versa), tumble dry clothing for 10 minutes in a hot dryer, or wash the clothes in hot water followed by drying in a hot dryer.
Protect yourself and your pets by taking a few preventive measures, and you can safely enjoy the warm spring and summer months with your furry companion.
*Permethrin is toxic to cats and can cause muscle tremors, seizures, and sometimes death. Many tick preventives labeled for dogs contain ingredients that are toxic to cats – be sure to discuss this with your veterinarian to be sure all products that you use are safe for your cat as well.