Ticks and Lyme Disease by David Kirkham
There has been a major change in the parasite scene in southern Ontario over the past five years. Historically, when it comes to our pets, our biggest concerns have revolved around the prevention and treatment of fleas and heartworm disease. These parasitic diseases are, by no means, less important but ticks have steadily increased in numbers and carry many potential health risks to us as well as our pets. Ticks are members of the arachnid family that includes, well, pretty much anything creepy crawly that would keep you up at night including scorpions and spiders. They go through their life cycles using smaller hosts and typically end up climbing to the tops of tall grasses waiting for a warm body to go by that they can latch onto. They then freeze the skin and embed their heads to drink the blood leaving the remainder of the body and legs on the outside. During the feeding process, tick saliva is deposited in the host to assist with digestion. This saliva, unbeknownst to the tick, is the root of the concern and the means by which diseases such as Lyme Disease are introduced into body. We don’t have a definitive reason for the increasing numbers of ticks but urban sprawl such as less natural predation on the smaller hosts, more human/pet contact with previously forested areas as well as climate changes have been proposed. Current literature states that the ticks in our immediate area become active at 4oC. In Caledon, going back ten years, removing a tick from a dog was a rare event and usually could be traced back to hikes in remote areas or travel to the American east coast. Last year, removing ticks outside the winter months was a weekly occurrence. More alarmingly, these dogs and cats in many cases are not leaving their own property! Our first tick of the season this year was found on a cat in February.
Lyme Disease is bacterial infection caused by Borrelia burgdorferi which is a spiral shaped obligate bacterium, meaning it isn’t free in the environment but rather must reside inside the body of host or tick. Signs in dogs vary from the more typical early onset arthritis and chronic discomfort to a more serious condition known as Fatal Lyme Nephritis. As a general rule in medicine, it’s undesirable to be diagnosed with anything that contains the word “Fatal” in the title. The good news here is that dogs respond remarkably well to antibiotic therapy, in most cases clearing the infection and returning to normal lives. According to Fox News, yes… I know….celebrities like Avril Lavigne, Alec Baldwin, Ben Stiller and Richard Gere have all been diagnosed with Lyme Disease.
With the basic knowledge foundation in place, what can we do to protect our best friends? In my opinion, there are four main areas where we can try to limit exposure to ticks and the diseases they carry:
1. Awareness ! Becoming educated by reliable sources remains the most important facet in the shield for the prevention of any disease. Keeping the grasses short and examining our pets (and ourselves!) carefully at the end of each day for ticks. Please visit www.canlyme.com for information on the human side as well as www.dogsandticks.com for more information about our pets.
2. Tick prevention – We have never had safer or more effective tick preventatives than we do now. Ranging from highly effective chews that protect against fleas and ticks for 3 months to topical treatments that combine some degree of tick prevention with heartworm, fleas and mites. Tailoring a protocol to your pet will depend on your pet’s individual risk assessment. This is a conversation that we’d love to have with you!
3. Vaccines – For dogs, there is a vaccine against Lyme Disease. In our immediate area at the present time we recommend focussing on tick prevention but have the vaccine available. This vaccine should be considered for animals travelling to Lyme endemic areas. As the disease situation in our area continues to change, the use of the vaccine will likely increase.
4. Disease surveillance – Last year, at the Cheltenham Veterinary Centre, we included not only a complimentary Heartworm test but also a test for Lyme Disease and other tick borne diseases (Anaplasma and Ehrlichia) with our spring wellness blood panels. We anticipate doing the same thing this year. Wellness bloodwork is a blood screen that pairs with the physical examination to give a complete overview of your pet’s health. It either provides us with the ability to detect many diseases early and intervene or provides a baseline that we can compare to in the event that your pet should become sick down the road.
Ticks, and the diseases they carry, is an evolving and complex science. Although undoubtedly over simplified, it’s my hope that this blog serves as the launching pad sparking not only an interest in these topics but also future conversation. As always, please contact us with any questions or concerns you have!