Ticks, ticks, ticks! I went walking this past weekend and my dogs were covered in ticks. I found a tick on my human child as well. Thus starts the time of year when I am emotionally scarred from ticks and consider surrounding myself with a ring of fire to stay safe. I start thinking I see them everywhere, though to be fair I often do. I hate ticks for multiple reasons, which I talk about often, but Lyme disease remains the number one thing I worry about. Today we will do a Lyme disease refresher.
Lyme disease is only spread by deer ticks (aka black-legged ticks) and can only be spread through bites. Therefore eating venison that is infected won’t give it to you. Dead ticks can’t give it to you. Your dog can’t give it to you and vice versa. And as I mention often, the vaccine also can’t give it to dogs. So the good news is that the only way your dog or you can get Lyme disease is by being bit by a tick that is infected. The bad news is that this is pretty common and easy.
Ticks are infected by the Borrelia organism, which causes Lyme disease. This replicates in their body and is then regurgitated (yep, they puke it into you) into the creature they are feeding on.
The Borrelia organism then spreads within the body of the new host. Ticks that carry the organism to spread Lyme disease are everywhere in Vermont. They are more common in woods, brush, and fields; but they are also found in lawns and along city sidewalks. Unless your dog is pee pad trained, or only goes into a concrete yard, chances are that they have some risk factors in Vermont. The other thing is that now that our winters have a lot more temperature swings, so “January thaw” happens throughout the winter.
Ticks this time of year are especially small and hard to detect. I recommend using a tick control product that kills the tick. And also spraying a repellent on your pet (or self) before going out on walks. Lint rollers work well after walks to pick up ticks that are still roaming. After a few hours they will attach and not be picked up on the surface any longer, so make this a routine done immediately at the end of walks.
The trick with Lyme disease is that there is a lot we don’t know. Some dogs fight off this organism sooner, some fight it off later, and some can’t fight it off at all. We aren’t sure if one course of treatment can eradicate the organism forever or if it can flare up in the future. Unless we keep our dogs in a bubble it is impossible to know if the times they get sick are from a previous infection or a new infection.
The in-house test that we use screens for exposure to Lyme disease. This does NOT mean the dog will have any symptoms. This is the tricky part about the screening test. Typically we like to run a second test to confirm. This test gives us a number value instead of just a “yes” or “no”.
Often a dog will test positive for many years in a row, even if they were treated or there is no disease. We don’t want to treat a dog each time they test positive, but we also don’t want to ignore new positives. In fact, we may not even know if a positive is a leftover or a new one. I typically use this test as a first-line screening for Lyme disease but work it up with more testing after. What it mainly tells me is if we need to boost up our tick prevention.
So let’s talk about tick prevention! The Lyme vaccine is a must for all dogs in Vermont, in my opinion. It does not prevent the disease, but it does prevent the turn to Lyme nephritis which is the (almost always) fatal portion of Lyme disease. Like the flu vaccine, it decreases signs and symptoms. However, it should also be combined with tick prevention. We have collars, chewable and topical liquids to help guard our dogs against ticks. I recommend using these all
12 months of the year. All ticks need is weather over 36 degrees, which we can now see every single month. We are seeing a lot of breakthroughs from the winter months these days.
To sum it up, nothing about Lyme disease is simple except the knowledge that we want to do anything possible to prevent it. Your veterinarian can go over all of the specifics with you, but vaccination and prevention in synchrony is our best bet.