Those Pesky Ticks
Dear Ask the Vets: We are avid hikers and have been hearing a lot about Lyme disease and ticks these days: what is the best way to prevent Lyme disease and what should I do if I find a tick on my dog?
Answer: We are currently seeing an increase in the number of cases of tick infestation and Lyme disease in our general area. Traditionally Lyme disease has been more prevalent along the north shore of Lake Erie, as well as Kingston-Gananoque, however it can be found in smaller concentrations through the rest of Ontario.
Lyme Disease is caused by a spiral shaped bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi and less commonly by newly discovered bacteria B. miyamotoi and B. hermsii. These bacteria are spread via tick bites between infected mice and deer to our domestic animal and ourselves. People who are bitten and contract the disease from an infected tick have an 80% chance of developing the acute illness with rash and flu like symptoms and a 60% chance of coming down with longer term symptoms such as arthritis, fatigue and more rarely neurologic signs. Dogs are more likely to get bitten given their lifestyle and proximity to tick-infected areas, however are less likely to actually get ill from Lyme disease. Studies show up to 90% of dogs in Lyme endemic areas can be positive for exposure, but a small percentage only actually ever show symptoms. Dogs can show signs like fever, arthritis and rarely kidney disease in later stages.
With Lyme disease becoming more prevalent, the best protection is preventing exposure to tick bites for both you and your pet. The Lyme bacteria cannot live outside a tick or infected animal, so the tick bite is essential to actually become infected. Adult ticks are small black to brown 8-legged critters that start out the size of a sesame seed and grow to about the size of a raisin once they have fed. The black-legged (deer) tick is the vector for Lyme disease. Ticks are usually unable to spread the disease until they have been attached and feeding for 24 hours, so prompt removal of a biting tick is important. American and Brown Dog ticks do not transmit Lyme disease but carry other rickettsial bacteria such as Analplasma and Ehrlichia which can infect your dog in as little as 3-5 hours of attachment.
Keep grass cut and minimize leaf litter to decrease tick-friendly areas in your back yard. Discourage mice and deer habitat close to your house where your pets hang out. After hiking in areas with wildlife do a thorough tick check of your pets using a comb or lint-roller; check in ears, skin folds and under collars. Remember that ticks can walk around on your dog for several days before settling on a place to bite, so keep checking daily. Visit the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation website (canlyme.com) for helpful tips on identifying ticks and tick removal.
If you find a tick lodged in your pets skin, it is already feeding and it is important to remove it as quickly and safely as possible. You can use fine forceps to grasp the mouthparts and pull straight out. Tools like a Tick Twisters are also available to help removal. Do not squeeze the body of the tick as it may force infected material back into the pet. It is important to use gloves if possible and clean the site of attachment after removal with an antiseptic. Your veterinarian can help you with removal if you are uncomfortable doing it and send the tick for testing to their reference laboratory if a black-legged tick exposure has occurred. Your local health unit may offer tick identification and possible testing of the tick for Lyme disease for human exposure cases.
Many types of tick preventives can help stop the tick from biting or will kill them with variable effectiveness. Treatments such as collars, spot-on treatments and oral tablets are available. Please note that some of these treatments are very toxic to cats and that you may need to limit exposure of your cat to your dog when applying them. Talk to your veterinarian to see which one is the right choice for your dog. A vaccine for Lyme disease is also available and if your dog is visiting Lyme endemic areas on a regular basis, you should discuss adding it into your pet’s vaccine schedule with your veterinarian. Remember preventing the bite and removing ticks quickly is still your best prevention for Lyme disease.
Wishing you a season of happy and healthy hiking!