During this viral pandemic, we must remember that other diseases still pose a threat. Our pets are still flourishing, and as the weather has gotten warmer, so has the emergence of ticks and the many diseases they can carry, the most commonly known one being Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is an illness that affects both animals and humans — making it what’s known as a zoonotic disease — and is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bacterium that causes Lyme disease is carried and transmitted primarily by a tiny black-legged tick known as the deer tick. Deer ticks are found in forests or grassy, wooded, marshy areas near rivers, lakes or oceans. People or animals may be bitten by deer ticks during outdoor activities such as hiking or camping, or even while spending time in their yards.
The disease can be difficult to detect and can cause serious and recurring health problems. Therefore, you should take appropriate measures to prevent tick bites and, for dogs, possibly vaccinate against the disease.
Lyme disease is a reportable disease, which means that health care providers and laboratories that diagnose cases of it are required to report those cases to local or state health departments, which in turn report the cases to the CDC.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Pets infected with Lyme disease may not show any signs for 2-5 months. After that time, typical symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Lameness/painful joints
- Joint swelling
- Decreased activity
Recurrent lameness may cause the affected limb to be tender. Inflammation of the joint can last from days to weeks and may move from one limb to another.
Symptomatically, Lyme disease can be difficult to distinguish from another disease carried by ticks, anaplasmosis, because the signs of the diseases are similar, and the diseases occur in essentially the same areas of the country. Lyme disease is diagnosed through a blood test that shows whether an animal has been exposed to the bacterium.
Antibiotics usually provide effective treatment. However, it’s important to follow your veterinarian’s advice regarding follow-up care after your pet has been diagnosed with and treated for the disease.
Lyme disease is not communicable from one animal to another, except through tick bites.
However, if you have more than one pet and one has been diagnosed with Lyme disease, your veterinarian might recommend testing for other pets that may have been exposed to ticks. In fact, because people and their pets often can be found together outdoors as well as indoors, a Lyme disease diagnosis for any family member, human or non-human, makes it wise for all family members to seek medical advice about further evaluation or testing.
The best way to protect pets from Lyme disease is to take preventive measures to reduce exposure to ticks. When possible, avoid areas where ticks might be found, such as tall grasses, marshes and wooded areas, including leaf and wood piles.
Tick detection and prompt and proper removal is the best way to prevent Lyme disease along with appropriate tick-preventative products. Check for ticks on yourself and your animals once indoors.
Clear shrubbery next to homes and keep lawns well maintained.
There are preventive Lyme disease vaccines available for dogs, but they aren’t necessarily recommended for every dog. Consult your veterinarian to see if the vaccination makes sense for your pets. If your veterinarian does recommend that your dog be vaccinated, the typical protocol will involve an initial vaccination followed by a booster 2-4 weeks later and annual boosters after that.
The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics are working together to offer advice to households with both children and pets.
People who have been diagnosed with Lyme disease should consult their veterinarian to determine their pet’s risk based on the animal’s lifestyle and possible environmental exposures. People whose animals have been diagnosed with Lyme disease may want to consult their physician if they have concerns that the animals and family members might have been exposed to similar environmental risks.
Here are the CDC's recommendations:
- Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin.
- After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
Dr. Jerry Klein is the American Kennel Club’s chief veterinary officer.
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