By Dr. Becker
Last year around this time I had quite a battle with tick exposure with my own dogs, Violet, her brother Esau, his mate Ada, and my little Boston terrier, Rosco.
I thought I would share the entire saga with you, since summer is upon us once again and it’s shaping up to be an extra bad year for pests and parasites. Hopefully, I’ll provide some helpful information to those of you with pets that have tested positive for a tick-borne disease … or might before the season is over.
The Adventure Begins: Violet Tests Positive for Lyme Disease
The adventure began with our dog Violet, who tested positive for Lyme disease according to the blood tests I run frequently on my pets.
We ran a SNAP 4Dx test on Violet’s blood, and the good news was she was negative for heartworm, Ehrlichia, and anaplasmosis. But she was positive for Lyme – meaning she had at least been exposed to it. So the next test I needed to run was a Lyme quantitative C6 antibody test, which differentiates between exposure and infection.
Most dogs exposed to Lyme-positive ticks are able to fight off the infection on their own. I didn’t want to use antibiotics unnecessarily, but I did want to make sure Violet was fighting off infection.
When I got home the evening of Violet’s Lyme-positive test result, I drew blood from her for the C6 antibody test, and I also drew blood from her brother, Esau, and our Boston terrier, Rosco, to check organ function and run the SNAP 4Dx on each of them.
Rosco passed all his tests with flying colors. No Lyme disease, no heartworm or other parasites, and he had the organs of a 4 year-old (even though he was 11 at the time).
Next up for a blood draw was Ada, who is Esau’s mate (no worries, no litters!). Because I’m a proactive vet, I check the status of my own pets’ health every six months. And as you can see, things can certainly change in just a short six-month period, as in the case of Violet.
Next Problem: Esau Has Anemia and a Low Platelet Count
Fortunately, Violet’s C6 test came back negative for Lyme, which means she was only exposed but not infected.
Ada tested negative for all tick-borne diseases and her organ function was fine.
Esau also tested negative for all tick-borne diseases per the SNAP 4Dx. But unfortunately, his platelets were low and he was anemic. Not good news for our Esau.
A low platelet count and anemia indicates either a consumption problem or a platelet production problem in the bone marrow. Either his bone marrow isn’t producing platelets, or his body is consuming them at a higher than normal rate. This can be something really scary -- like internal bleeding, or maybe a tumor on his spleen. Hemangiosarcoma, which is a type of spleen cancer, causes low platelet counts.
But thinking positively, it could also be Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is the most likely cause, actually, of slight anemia and a low platelet count. Rocky Mountain spotted fever is yet another tick-borne disease that we don’t routinely test for. Fortunately, it’s treatable and curable … unlike most spleen tumors.
So I drew more blood from Esau to send out for a Rocky Mountain spotted fever test.
Esau’s Diagnosis: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Esau tested positive for Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The etiologic agent is Rickettsia rickettsii. This particular organism is transmitted by American dog ticks and lone star ticks.
The good news is Esau’s condition was totally treatable. He didn’t have any visible symptoms other than slightly pale gums. No petechial hemorrhages and no lethargy.
This is a great example of proactive medicine at work. Because I test my pets’ blood every six months, I was able to spot a problem with anemia and a low platelet count in Esau. That led me to do the second test for Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and based on those results, I was able to completely resolve the condition before it created any problems for my dog.
Why Tick-borne Disease is Reaching Epidemic Proportions
There are several reasons, in my professional opinion, for the epidemic of tick-borne diseases we’re experiencing across the U.S.
First of all, ticks are resilient little suckers. They were once only a problem in certain areas of the country, but now they are being found across the U.S., which means they are expanding their home turf.
I’m also very concerned about pesticide resistance in ticks. For the last 50 years, we have seen progressively more toxic options for tick control. Dogs are getting monthly doses of chemicals year after year … and yet they’re still testing positive for tick-borne diseases.
Although chemical preventives may reduce the sheer number of ticks that attach to a dog, those ticks that do attach still carry disease. It’s a given the pesticides we’re applying at unprecedented rates to our dogs are causing resistance in parasites, and yet they are not one hundred percent effective at preventing tick attachment or disease transmission.
Another reason tick-borne diseases are on the rise is that insects other than ticks – specifically mosquitoes -- have been found to transmit some of these potentially lethal infections.
Screening Tests for Tick-borne Infections Should Be Done Routinely
Fortunately, more vets are routinely screening for tick-borne diseases these days, which is allowing for earlier detection and treatment. I now routinely test at-risk dogs for tick-borne diseases twice a year.
Last year, in addition to my own pets having issues, we saw dozens of patients that also tested positive on routine screening. Most shocking was the fact that only a few owners of those dogs could recall finding a tick on their pet.
Just because a dog tests positive on the initial screening test for tick-borne disease doesn’t mean she must immediately be treated. In fact, most dogs successfully clear their own infections without the need for medical intervention. For this reason, I don’t recommend automatically giving antibiotics to positive dogs.
If your pet tests positive, I recommend you insist that your vet do additional testing to find out whether he has just been exposed or is actually dealing with an infection.
I live and work in the Midwest. Many pets, including my own, spend a significant amount of time outside during the warm summer months. This of course leads to a greater risk of tick attachment. But your dog can still be at risk even if he doesn’t spend a lot of time outside, so I still recommend you have your dog checked for tick-borne diseases with a SNAP 4Dx test, or a newer test by Antech called Accuplex.
Because tick-borne diseases are occurring at epidemic rates, and because these diseases if left undiagnosed and untreated can be lethal and really decrease a pet’s quality of life, a common-sense proactive approach is to simply ask your vet to do a simple screening test at your dog’s bi-annual wellness exam.
Lyme disease is the most well-known of the many infections ticks can transmit. Lyme is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. The tick species that carries B. burgdorferi is the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick.
Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs can vary a great deal. In people, the infection causes a bull’s eye target shaped rash, but that doesn’t often happen with dogs. Warning signs of an infection may not appear until the disease has caused a significant amount of degeneration in your dog’s body.
Symptoms can also be intermittent. They can be initially vague, leading you or your vet to believe your pet is simply having a few “off” days. You might see a mild decrease in appetite … perhaps a mild lameness … maybe a swollen joint or a mild fever for a few days. These are all things we expect to see at one time or another in a dog’s life, and don’t necessarily assign much significance to them.
Because Lyme disease is found throughout the U.S., if you think your dog is just not up to par and has one or more of the mild symptoms I just listed, I recommend you ask your vet to check for Lyme disease.
If the disease goes undetected it can lead to kidney failure and terrible polyarthritis that can absolutely ruin your dog’s quality of life.
Many dogs’ immune systems clear Lyme infection on their own without the need for antibiotics or other treatment. If your dog does test positive for Lyme, please insist on the quantitative C6 follow-up test I mentioned earlier. The C6 will differentiate true infection from exposure.
Only if your dog is truly infected should he be treated with antibiotics. If your dog needs a course of antibiotics, be sure to supplement with a probiotic at the same time. I also recommend you continue the probiotic for at least a month after antibiotic therapy to avoid GI problems.
Canine ehrlichiosis is another tick-borne disease caused by two bacteria. One is Ehrlichia canis, which is transmitted by the brown dog tick and is found most frequently in the southwest and Gulf Coast states. The other is Ehrlichia ewingii, which is transmitted by the lone star tick and can be found from the Midwest to New England.
Like other tick-borne diseases, ehrlichia can wreak havoc on your dog’s body if it’s not identified and treated. Symptoms can be vague – loss of appetite, a low-grade fever, lethargy, maybe a swollen lymph node or two. Sometimes there are more noticeable symptoms such as unexplained bruising, lameness or nosebleeds.
A diagnosis can be confirmed with a blood test called a PCR. If your dog tests positive on the screening test for ehrlichia, you can request a second PCR test to confirm infection.
Canine anaplasmosis is caused by the bacteria Anaplasma phagocytophilum or Anaplasma platys. The infection is transmitted by the deer tick or the brown dog tick, both of which are found throughout the U.S.
Infected dogs can run a high fever and sometimes they lose their appetite. There can be GI symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. There are sometimes neurologic signs or neck pain. Symptoms can also be as serious as seizures or anemia.
If your dog tests positive for anaplasmosis on a SNAP 4Dx test but doesn’t have anemia or other symptoms, chances are she has effectively cleared the bacteria on her own. But if her blood test shows anemia and/or she has any other symptoms, I recommend a second test -- the PCR -- which will confirm anaplasmosis infection.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Rocky Mountain spotted fever in dogs is caused by the bacteria Rickettsia rickettsii. It is most commonly transmitted by the lone star tick, but can also be carried by the American dog tick and the wood tick. Despite the name “Rocky Mountain” spotted fever, the ticks that carry the disease are found throughout the U.S.
Some infected dogs have a fever, body soreness, or neurologic symptoms. Not all dogs have the spotty, patchy skin rash that is characteristic of the infection in humans.
Vets confirm a Rocky Mountain spotted fever infection by measuring the antibody titer level through a blood test.
Reducing Your Pet’s Risk of a Tick-borne Infection
How can you reduce your dog’s risk of acquiring a tick-borne disease?
- Check for ticks daily, and don’t overlook areas of your pet’s body where ticks can hide, like between the toes, the underside of the toes, in the earflaps and around the tail base.
My dog Violet has a black skin tag and a very short coat, so everyone who sees her for the first time thinks she has a tick on her side. That’s why it’s important to know your dog’s “normals” so you can easily identify any “abnormals.” If you’re ever unsure whether you’re looking at a tick or a skin tag or other bump on your dog, get out a magnifying glass and look for the telltale sign of a tick – legs.
- Remember that ticks must be attached to your dog for at least 24 hours in order for the disease-causing bacteria to be transmitted from the tick to your pet. That’s why daily tick checks and removing ticks immediately is a huge part of reducing your dog’s risk of acquiring a tick-borne disease.
- If you find a tick on your dog, be sure to remove it correctly. Don’t use your bare hands. People can become infected by handling or crushing an infected tick. Either wear gloves, or even better, use a tick-removing tool.
Grasp the tick very close to your pet’s skin with our Tick Stick, a similar tick removal tool, or a pair of tweezers. Carefully pull the tick’s body away from the skin. You may pull some hair along with it, but that’s okay. The important thing is to grip the tick as close to your pet’s skin as possible. Once it’s off, flush it down the toilet.
Next, disinfect your dog’s skin with soapy water or my favorite disinfectant, diluted povidone iodine, also called Betadine. Disinfect the area really well and monitor it for the next few days. If you notice any irritation or inflammation of the skin, you should contact your veterinarian.
If you are a proactive pet owner, you’ll want to have your dog tested for tick-borne diseases about three to four weeks after removing a tick. The type of test to ask your vet for is the SNAP 4Dx test, which is a screening blood test.
If you don’t have the 4Dx test done, you’ll want to watch your dog closely for several months for any signs of loss of appetite, lethargy, changes in gait, fever, intermittent limping – all the symptoms of potential tick-borne diseases.
Unfortunately, tick-borne diseases are here to stay. Checking your dog externally for ticks and having his blood checked regularly for internal, silent infections is the very best approach to keeping your pet safe from these potentially devastating diseases.
For more information on tick-borne illness, pictures of different types of disease-carrying ticks, and maps showing the number of reported cases of tick-borne disease in your area, visit DogsandTicks.com.