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Pet Wise: What pet owners need to know about ticks and Lyme disease

Take this Tick Knowledge True or False quiz.

  • Ticks emerge only during warmer weather.
  • To save money, pet owners don’t need to administer tick preventatives during colder months.
  • Ticks can be killed by burning them while they are attached to the pet.

The answers will be revealed as you read this column.

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Ticks are tenacious little creatures that cause disease and misery to both man and beast. Even without warm weather, pet owners need to know that ticks should be considered as a year-round threat to animals and humans. They have eight legs and are members of the arachnid family, but unlike spiders they have a hard exoskeleton that is difficult to crush. Ticks are unable to jump or fly but seek a "host" animal to feed on its blood by climbing up vegetation, then falling or grabbing onto a passing host that may be a mammal or bird.

Several tick species found in our region include the American dog (wood) tick that caries Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tick paralysis, the Lone Star tick that has gradually traveled to the eastern and southern regions of the country and carries Cytauxzoon felis, a life-threatening disease affecting domestic cats, and tularemia caused by direct with infected animals like rabbits and rodents from tick or fly bites, and the brown dog tick that carries babesiosis and ehrlichiosis.

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Today's column will focus on Lyme disease which was discovered in the town of Lyme, Connecticut and has been around for at least a century, but public awareness of the disease did not occur until the late 1980s. This disease has spread rapidly adversely affecting the lives of animals and humans.

Lyme disease is a primary concern for pet owners, therefore it is important to know what environmental conditions are ideal for deer ticks so that owners can protect their pets and themselves.

Deer ticks do not live primarily in long grassy areas, but are found mostly in leaf litter under forest canopies and especially in wooded areas according to veterinarian Scott Stevesonn, DVM, MSc, BMSc who has extensively studied, lectured, and written about tick issues in Canada. Stevenson states the deer tick feeds only three times during its life and lives for 2-4 years to complete this cycle. Adult females engorge themselves on a blood meal, and drop off the host, and lay up to 3,000 eggs in the late spring. The eggs hatch in the mid-to-late-summer as larval ticks (the size of tiny freckles), and feed on small mammals like mice and chipmunks or ground-dwelling birds.

At this stage the ticks do not carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. The white-footed mouse is the main source for the Lyme bacteria so when feeding on the mouse the larval tick picks up the bacteria from the blood meal then carries this to the next stage of its life, falls off the mouse host and molts into a nymph. This tick will feed in late spring or early summer the following year.

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These ticks now have the potential to carry Lyme disease after picking it up while feeding as a larval tick. Nymphs will continue to feed on small mammal hosts or birds but will bite humans and sometimes dogs however are extremely small (size of a poppy seed) and difficult to see. After feeding as a nymph, the tick falls off the host and molts into an adult and feeds on larger hosts like deer in the late fall or early spring. Because adult ticks have fed twice, they have twice the chance of carrying Lyme disease. Pet owners need to be aware that adult ticks are also active during the winter. According to Stevenson, dogs are more at risk of contracting Lyme disease from adult ticks than from nymphs because dogs have longer hair making it difficult to find ticks until fully engorged and adult ticks are more likely to carry Lyme disease.

The symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs may not appear for 2 to 5 months after a tick bite usually in the form of lameness that may shift to other legs, mild fever, anorexia, and lethargy. These symptoms should not be ignored and the dogs should be evaluated by a vet to prevent chronic joint disease and potentially deadly kidney damage.

Diagnosis/treatment

The main diagnostic tools to determine if Lyme disease is present are blood testing and a urinalysis. Blood tests usually include a complete blood count along with a biochemistry panel, and other comprehensive tests. If the dog is lame, radiographs and analysis of joint fluid are usually included.

The treatment for Lyme disease consists of antibiotics like doxycycline or amoxicillin.

Prevention

Stevenson feels that Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases are preventable and has developed a three-pronged approach for the veterinary clients in his practice.

Education/tick checks. Learn to identify species of ticks in your area from photos viewed on the internet. Conduct thorough "tick checks' of your dog daily, Ticks are usually found where blood vessels are close to the skin (like around the collar .head, ears, neck, nose, armpits and belly), but ticks can found almost anywhere on a dog's body Owners may discover something of medical importance such as masses, flea dirt or skin problems.

Use of Preventives. Oral products like Bravecto and NexGard have been thoroughly tested and seem to be more effective than topical preventives according to Dr. Laura Owens (Eldersburg Veterinary Hospital). For preventives to work successfully they must be administered year round.

Dr. Alana Velazquez of the Westminster Animal Hospital, warns that some veterinarians' only products have been diverted to retailers and online pharmacies, but that testing has shown some of the products were modified (mostly topical preventatives) and diluted! Velazquez warned that some veterinarians' only products have been diverted to retailers and online pharmacies but that testing has shown some of the products were modified (mostly topical preventatives) and diluted! Velazquez stated: "This decreases their effectiveness and contributes to parasite resistance to the active ingredient so buyer beware!" In addition, she added "that the manufacturer will not recognize their product guarantee if it cannot be proven to be purchased directly from a licensed veterinarian!"

Vaccination in combination with daily tick checks and regular use of preventives can reduce Lyme disease cases.

Safe tick removal

Stevenson recommends using a fine tweezer to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible, pulling gently but firmly or using "Tick Keys" or "Tick Twisters" working slowly and gently to remove the tick's mouthparts. Ticks need to be removed as soon as possible to decrease disease transmission. Never use dish soap, DEET, gasoline, turpentine, or alcohol. These noxious substances cause the tick to regurgitate its stomach contents and increases chances of exposure to tick-borne disease.

Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.

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