States in the Northeast and the upper Midwest — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan — remain at greatest risk. Other states like Florida, Texas, Nevada, California and Oregon remained in the 500-plus category.
Veterinarians practicing in Lyme-endemic areas can experience up to 73 percent of dogs testing positive for Borrelia burgdorferi infection, the pathogen that causes Lyme disease.
Warm weather is upon us. The spring and summer months bring long sunny days, clear starry nights … and bugs. Lots of them, depending on where you live.
Most bugs are annoying but relatively harmless. However, there are a few types of pests that can bring serious harm to people and pets. Ticks are among them.
Infected ticks can transmit Lyme disease, a condition discovered in 1975 in Lyme, Connecticut.
Ticks and Lyme Disease
Lyme disease, also known as borreliosis, is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. This bacteria is carried by two types of ticks: the common deer tick Ixodes scapularis in the Northeast and upper Midwest, and the Ixodes pacificus variety of tick in the western U.S.
In order for a tick to infect your dog with B. burgdorferi, it must be attached for at least 48 hours. If the tick dies or is removed before that time, transmission of the bacteria won’t occur.
And just because a tick carrying the bacteria attaches for 48 hours doesn’t mean your dog will get Lyme disease, as only a percentage of dogs exposed become infected.
If your dog does become infected, there’s no evidence to suggest he can make you or another family member sick. However, it is possible to become infected from a tick that has detached from your pet before becoming full. That tick could bite a human member of the family and transmit the bacteria that causes infection.
Lyme Disease Symptoms in Dogs
Canine symptoms of the disease are different from human symptoms.
An important fact to keep in mind is that your dog won’t develop the tell-tale rash or red area around the wound typical of a human reaction to a bite from an infected tick.
Many dogs infected with B. burgdorferi show no symptoms at all, and presence of the bacteria is only detected through routine annual tests at a veterinary clinic.
If your dog becomes symptomatic, it will usually take from two to five months after the tick bite for problems to arise. The most common symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- Hot, painful, swollen lymph nodes
- Joint swelling
- Lameness which often shifts from leg to leg
- Loss of appetite
It’s not common, but some dogs develop severe, progressive kidney disease as a result of Lyme infection. Kidney failure can be life-threatening, so if your dog has tested positive for B. burgdorferi, it’s a good idea to have regular blood and urine tests done to assess kidney function.
Occasionally, a dog will develop a heart or nervous system problem after being infected with Lyme disease.
A standard blood test will tell your veterinarian whether or not your pup has antibodies resulting from the presence of the B. burgdorferi bacteria.
Keep in mind that just because your dog is positive for antibodies doesn’t mean he’s been infected. The vast majority of dogs – around 90 percent – exposed to the bacteria do not go on to develop Lyme disease.
For dogs diagnosed with active Lyme disease, the traditional treatment is antibiotic therapy. To counter the side effects of antibiotics on your pet’s gastrointestinal system, I recommend a high-quality probiotic supplement.
If your pup tests positive for B. burgdorferi antibodies but is otherwise healthy and shows no symptoms of active Lyme disease or kidney function deficiency, I don’t recommend antibiotic therapy.
Antibiotics are overprescribed in veterinary medicine, and too-frequent and often unnecessary use of these drugs is causing antibiotic resistance in a growing number of bacteria strains.
How to Reduce Your Pet’s Risk of Exposure to Infected Ticks
Ticks can’t fly or jump, they must be provided the opportunity to either drop or crawl onto your pet (or you).
If you live in a Lyme-endemic area, you should:
- Avoid tick infested areas whenever possible. Keep to walkways and trails and away from overgrown grass, brush and leaves in order to reduce your chances of picking up a tick along the way.
- At home keep the lawn mowed and trees trimmed to avoid overgrowth.
- Make sure wildlife and other animals can’t gain access to your property to drop off ticks that could wind up on your pet.
- Check your pup daily for ticks. Remember a tick needs about 48 hours to transmit infection to your dog, so daily inspection and removal of ticks is key to keeping your pet safe from infection. If you find a tick, remove it carefully using tweezers (not your fingers) as follows:
- Grasp the tick by the head or mouth area right where it entered the skin. Be careful not to crush the body of the tick – doing so could force bacteria from the tick into your dog’s bloodstream.
- Pull the tick away from the skin firmly and steadily, without jerking or twisting.
- Don’t attempt to coax the tick out with petroleum jelly, a lit match, or any other device. This method doesn’t work and might cause the tick to deposit more disease-carrying bacteria in the bite wound.
- Dispose of the tick in a jar of alcohol to kill it. Don’t flush it down the toilet or crush it in your hands.
- Don’t worry if part of the tick’s mouth is left on the skin. Clean the area with a disinfectant solution. I recommend using povidone-iodine, an organic iodine that does a good job controlling most skin bacteria.
- Wash your hands thoroughly.
- Follow my recommendations for safe, natural parasite control for your pets. I don’t recommend you go straight for chemical preventives, as there are a number of natural products available for pest control that do not have dangerous side effects.
I also strongly discourage the use of vaccines for Lyme disease. Research has shown these vaccines to be both ineffective and dangerous.
The goal of preventive pest control is to bring your dog or cat to optimal health, which will make him naturally more resilient and less attractive to parasites. A high quality, species appropriate diet is the foundation upon which your pet’s good health and long life must be built.