Lyme Keeps on Ticking: protecting pets from ticks

Posted by Dr. Nina Mantione on Sep 21 2010

In my clinic, we run a routine test for Lyme disease once a year on the majority of our canine patients. There are days when at least half of the dogs on my schedule test positive. I try my hardest to prevent this disease, but in my region of the US, it sometimes feels like a losing battle.

I’m sure that almost everyone knows, thanks to the media attention it has received over the past decade, that Lyme disease is spread by ticks. It is not, as I am so frequently asked, transmitted from person to person, dog to person, or person to dog. Luckily for our canine patients, they seem to be less susceptible to infection than we are, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t make them sick.

Most dogs that have been exposed to Lyme disease may never have symptoms. But when they do, the most typical are fever, lethargy and joint pain. Rarely, it can also cause a serious, life-threatening form of kidney disease as well. Unfortunately, we have no way to predict which Lyme positive dogs will someday go on to have kidney disease, but we do know that many of them have never had prior symptoms.

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There is a lot of confusion surrounding Lyme disease in dogs. This confusion is well-earned, since even in human medicine it is still somewhat poorly understood. In dogs, there is often debate about which positive dogs should be treated. This is because there is a large discrepancy between dogs that test positive (meaning they’ve had exposure) and dogs that become symptomatic. Some estimates are that as little as 5% of exposed dogs will suffer from actual symptoms. There is no clear answer on when to treat a dog with Lyme disease if it is asymptomatic. (There is agreement that symptomatic dogs should be treated.) Most veterinarians prefer to run a blood test called a C6 antibody. This test gives a quantitative value to assess the severity of infection, and makes it easier to decide whether or not treatment is recommended.

Treatment for uncomplicated Lyme disease is straightforward. It involves giving an antibiotic (usually doxycycline) for one month. Part of the problem with Lyme disease is that it may never be fully eradicated with treatment. We do see dogs that have been treated become symptomatic or test positive years later, and we can never be sure if it is an old infection re-emerging or a new infection from a more recent tick bite.

With all of this controversy, the best way to handle Lyme disease is to prevent it. Remember that tick preventative you are supposed to use faithfully every month? We know that preventing ticks is the most effective way of preventing Lyme disease. The second line of defense is the vaccine against Lyme disease that is also very effective at preventing infection. We are very lucky nowadays to have such effective options for prevention. Speak to your veterinarian as recommendations may vary from region to region, but educate yourself about Lyme disease, and hopefully you will never have to worry about it in your own pet.

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