By Dr. Becker
Last year toward the end of flea/tick season, IDEXX Laboratories (maker of the SNAP 4Dx test for tick-borne diseases) issued a press release to report there were four times as many Ehrlichia exposures in 2012 vs. 2011 in the south central and eastern regions of the U.S. (Ehrlichia is one of several tick-borne diseases.)
And of course the veterinary community is now being prompted by the Companion Animal Parasite Council -- which boasts as sponsors no less than 11 veterinary drug manufacturers and laboratories -- to respond in the usual way. From dvm360:
In order to keep that [the spreading Ehrlichia exposure] threat to a minimum, [Dr. Susan] Little suggests that veterinarians follow the Companion Animal Parasite Council’s recommendations and urge clients to practice year-round tick control and prevention. “We need to be more adamant with clients about year-round tick control for dogs and cats,” Little says. “Tick control protects dogs and cats from tick-borne diseases—the ones we know about and the ones we’re still finding out about.”
Translation: Veterinarians should increase the pressure on pet owners to give tick preventives year-round, and not only to dogs, but also to cats. It doesn’t matter where the pet lives, his lifestyle, or whether he even goes outdoors -- just load him up with chemical pesticides and all will be well.
Before you subject your own pet to year-round chemical preventives that may not be necessary or terribly effective, but WILL add significantly to your dog’s toxic load, you should read on.
Why Tick-borne Diseases are on the Rise
As I discussed last July in an article about my own dogs and tick-borne illness, there are several reasons for the increase in tick-related diseases across the U.S.
As we are discovering, ticks are hardy little suckers able to expand their geography from one region of the country to others.
In addition, in my opinion we’ve overused progressively more toxic tick control agents for several decades, with the result that ticks have developed resistance to pesticides. I see dogs in my practice that have received monthly doses of pesticides for years, yet they still test positive for tick-borne illness.
This is because while chemical preventives may reduce the number of ticks that wind up on your dog, those that do attach can still carry disease. So the pesticides being given at ever-increasing rates to our pets are not completely effective at preventing ticks from attaching or preventing disease.
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.
Human management of wildlife populations, as well as a shift in wildlife population dynamics may also play into rising tick-borne diseases.
Canine ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne disease caused by two bacteria. Ehrlichia canis is transmitted by the brown dog tick and is commonly found in the southwest and Gulf Coast states. Ehrlichia ewingii is transmitted by the lone star tick and is 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, low-grade fever, lethargy, swollen lymph nodes. 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 SNAP 4Dx screening test for Ehrlichia, you can request a PCR test to confirm infection.
Keep in mind that just because a dog tests positive on the initial screening test 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, ask your vet to do additional testing to find out whether she has just been exposed or is actually dealing with an infection.
Tips for Preventing a Tick-borne Infection
- When flea and tick season arrives, 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. If you’re ever unsure whether you’re looking at a tick or some 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. This is hands-down the safest and entirely non-toxic method of tick prevention!
- 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. 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. Once it’s off, flush it down the toilet. Then disinfect your dog’s skin with soapy water or diluted povidone iodine (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.
- 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.
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 potentially devastating tick-borne diseases.