As we transition from winter to spring and summer—and since April is Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs Month—it’s a good time to talk about ticks and tick-borne diseases. As the weather warms up and we begin to spend more time outdoors, it’s important to remember that ticks are also transitioning from their winter dormant phase, hidden in the leafy debris, to their active feeding phase.
Deer ticks (also known as black-legged ticks) become active as soon as the temperatures rise to 4°C (39°F) and they remain active all through the spring, summer, fall, and can still be active on warm winter days. Deer ticks carry the bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) that causes Lyme disease—a tick-borne disease that causes painful lameness in dogs.
Lyme disease is transmitted to dogs through the bite of a deer tick. Once in the blood stream, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease is carried to many parts of the body and commonly localizes in the joints and kidneys. Deer ticks range from the Midwest to the Eastern United States and throughout Canada with the highest numbers found east of Manitoba. Not all deer ticks carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but certain areas have been identified as higher risk areas for Lyme disease. Check with your veterinarian to find out if your area is a high-risk area.
Dogs cannot transmit Lyme disease to one another or to humans. The infection always comes directly from a tick bite.
In dogs, signs of Lyme disease can take 2-5 months to appear. Lameness and joint pain, especially in the knee and elbow joints, are often the first signs noticed with Lyme disease. This lameness may shift from leg to leg or may occur intermittently. Dogs may also have a fever. In some cases, the disease resolves on its own, but in other cases it may be long-term and may affect the kidneys and heart resulting in death. Some dogs don’t have any obvious signs so yearly testing for Lyme disease, along with heartworm testing, is highly recommended.
While there is treatment available for Lyme disease, it can be difficult to treat, especially if it’s not caught early. Prevention is always easier than treatment.
You can help protect your pet from becoming infected with Lyme disease by:
- using a tick preventive
- avoiding wooded or grassy areas and stick to trails
- performing daily tick checks and removing any ticks that you may find (see below)
- discussing the Lyme vaccine with your veterinarian for dogs living in high-risk areas
Many different tick preventives are available, and your veterinarian will help you chose a preventive that suits you and your pet’s lifestyle. Options include topical preventives (typically applied on a pet’s skin and at the back of the neck) such as Frontline® Plus, Bravecto® Topical Solution, and Advantix®. Chewable preventives include NexGard®, Simparica®, and Bravecto® Chew.
Check your pets daily for ticks, especially if you live a high-risk area. Give your dog a full once over, but be sure to focus on the following areas: in and around the ears, around the eyelids, under the collar, between the toes, around the tail, between the back legs, and under the front legs. If you find a tick on your pet, it’s important to remove it right away. The bacteria that causes Lyme disease can pass through small cuts or wounds in your skin, so be sure to wear disposable gloves when removing ticks. Juvenile deer ticks are about the size of a pinhead but are more obvious in the adult phase and after feeding on a bloodmeal. If you find a tick attached to your pet, grasp it with tweezers near the dog’s skin and firmly pull it straight out. Pull the tick with even, steady pressure—it may take a minute of two for the tick to release its grip. If you are unable or unsure of how to remove the tick, or if the tick’s body breaks away from its head, leaving the head in the skin, contact your veterinarian.
Despite the challenging times we are all going through with the current COVID-19 pandemic, your veterinarian is available to help you protect your pet against tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease. Call your veterinary clinic to see how tick preventives are being prescribed this year – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.