What is Lyme disease?
With Spring here, warmer weather and longer days mean we can look forward to spending more time outside with our dogs. It also signals the start of tick season. Ticks are small spider-like parasites that live in long grass and undergrowth, waiting for animals to pass and cling onto before feeding on their blood. Engorged ticks look like a shiny, grey pea or bean with a darker head section and small legs, attached to the skin via sharp biting mouthparts. Depending on their life stage ticks feed on blood of several host animals from mice to deer, with dogs being another firm favourite on their menu. Humans can also be bitten. Some areas of the country and certain habitats in particular are hotspots for ticks, so it is important for pet owners to be aware if they live near, exercise their dog or holiday in such areas. Rough countryside, grassland, woodland, heaths and large parks are prime habitats, and anywhere with deer or sheep also tend to carry high tick populations. Ticks are most active from early Spring until late Autumn but with milder weather can now appear almost all year round.
The problem with ticks is not only the blood sucking effect and potential for bites to become infected, but they can also transmit a range of very serious infections. One such disease which is very worrying affecting both dogs and their owners is Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterial infection carried in the tick’s body which gets into the bloodstream of the host animal (or human) while the tick is feeding. The bacteria have the rather long-winded scientific name of Borrelia burgdorferi which is why you will sometimes see Lyme disease referred to as Lyme Borreliosis.
Lyme disease in both dogs and people can be difficult to diagnose due to vague symptoms and a lengthy incubation period where the patient shows no signs of illness until long after they have been bitten. It can also be difficult to detect the bacteria or antibodies to it on blood tests. Signs of infection can mimic many other conditions but in dogs commonly show up several weeks to several months after being bitten, and include the following:
- Lethargy, depression or lack of energy
- Lack of appetite
- Painful joints in one or several limbs, resulting in lameness
- Swollen lymph nodes/glands
In some cases, kidney disease, heart problems and neurological issues can arise as a result of infection which are very serious indeed. In humans one of the tell-tale signs of infection followed by a tick bite is a ‘bullseye lesion’ or circular red skin rash surrounding another red spot in the centre. This only occurs in 70-80% of people however and can appear up to 30 days following a tick bite. Some people never even knew they were bitten by a tick in the first place, as they have an unnerving habit of seeking out dark crevices and skin folds in which to attach and feed so may go undetected. That fact certainly gives the tails.com team the shivers!
Treatment of Lyme disease in dogs relies on accurate diagnosis in the first place, and may not be successful if the dog has already been infected for a long period of time. Treatment usually involves supportive care (pain relief, anti-inflammatories for sore joints, fluids, appetite stimulants) as well as a prolonged course of one or two specific antibiotics proven to be effective against the Lyme bacteria. Treatment can be successful at eliminating active infection but sadly some dogs will remain affected throughout their life, with kidney or other organ dysfunction for the rest of their lives for example. Confusingly, some dogs can be infected and never show any symptoms of the disease.
Because this disease is so troublesome to diagnose and treat in many cases, the best approach is definitely prevention rather than cure.
- Collars and spots ons: The mainstay of prevention for dogs is using a prescription tick preventative medication from your vet, either in a topical spot on liquid form applied to the back of your pet’s neck, usually on a monthly basis, or a special drug-impregnated collar which repels and kills ticks. There are a huge number of anti-parasite products on the market nowadays, some of which may kill fleas but not ticks. It can be a minefield of confusion knowing which combination of products to choose to protect your pooch. Over the counter products can vary in efficacy so it is crucial to speak with your vet about a suitable product that incorporates tick cover if your dog exercises or lives in tick habitat. For various reasons however such tick treatments may fail; if they get washed off in the first few days after application for instance or if they haven’t been applied at the correct dose or frequency. There are now flavoured oral tablets available from your vet that treat fleas and ticks which resolve the problems that can occur with topical spot on preparations.
- Removing ticks early: If a tick manages to get on your dog to feed, it may remain there for some time allowing the Lyme bacteria to migrate from the tick’s gut through the mouthparts and into your dog’s bloodstream. This process can take as little as 24-48 hours after tick attachment. Therefore, it is also important for you to recognise a tick and how to remove it correctly. The most common mistake made when trying to remove a tick is leaving the biting mouthparts or head of the tick embedded in the skin which can lead to infection or a painful abscess. For this reason, it is important never to pull the tick off with tweezers or your fingers. Special tick remover tools which insert under the tick’s head and are twisted to remove the tick and mouthparts are available from most vet’s clinics and online, but if you are not confident to do this yourself it is a good idea to have your vet do it for you or show you how.
- Vaccination: Finally, there is now a vaccination against Lyme disease for dogs available in the UK which gives another level of cover against infection in dogs that are exposed to high tick burdens. Even with appropriate prescription tick preventatives, the occasional tick could manage to feed and transmit infection if cover is not up to date. If you know your dog goes to prime tick habitat on a regular basis and is at high risk for Lyme disease it may be worth discussing this vaccination with your vet to ensure they never become infected. This clever vaccine destroys the Lyme bacteria within the tick’s gut once it takes a blood meal, preventing the bacteria from migrating into your dog.
- Clothing: It is also important to protect yourself in any type of habitat that ticks occupy by wearing long sleeves, tucking trousers into socks, sticking to clear paths rather than venturing into long grass or dense undergrowth and always checking clothing and your body when you return from your walks.
If you have any concerns that you may have been exposed to tick bites and are experiencing any worrying symptoms it is a good idea to consult your doctor. With Lyme disease diagnosis on the rise in the UK in both dogs and humans, the team here at tails.com want you to be aware and informed so you and your dog can get out and get active whilst staying safe.