Keep a watchful eye: Pets can get Lyme disease, too

Date Published: 
September 23, 2016

According to the Center for Disease Control, Lyme disease is the fastest-growing vector-borne infectious disease in the United States.

The inflammatory disease, often characterized at first with flu-like symptoms and later, possibly, by arthritis and neurological disorders, is caused by a bacteria transmitted by ticks.

Although Lyme is an illness that is getting more recognition as something against which humans should keep a watchful eye, dogs are also susceptible to the disease.

“Our clients, we usually talk to them quite a bit about Lyme disease, because we live in an endemic area,” said Alicia Lovins, DVM, a veterinary doctor at Ocean View Animal Hospital. “With dogs, and typically not cats, we look at the control of the tick population and do have several products that help to kill the tick before it can transfer disease.”

Lovins said they emphasize the importance of preventative products and discuss with their clients what is on the market — from topical spot-on products and oral medication to collars.

“We talk about the different products, make sure they know they’re in an endemic area, and we can talk about how to screen your pets.”

Lovins also noted that a Lyme disease vaccine is available for dogs as a secondary type of prevention.

“We do recommend in this area getting the vaccine,” she said. “There are areas in the country where it is not recommended as a core vaccine, but because we are here, in the Northeast area, it is definitely recommended.”

The vaccine is given to dogs as puppies, following their rabies and distemper vaccines — it’s a two shot series initially, with yearly shots after.

But screening pets is key to prevention, said Lovins. Take into account where pets are walked when determining how often to screen them.

“If they are going in areas where there are tall grasses, or areas with wet grasses, are the most likely areas to get ticks, especially in early spring. People with white-colored animals are a little bit lucky, because it’s easier to see the tick crawling across the animal before they even attach… Lots of pets will allow belly-rubs and scratching, so a lot of pet owners can screen their pets for ticks on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s easier to catch them when they first come inside, because they haven’t attached yet.”

Where to focus a tick search on a given pet may depend on the specific dog’s activity, said Lovins. But, in general, owners should check around their dogs’ ears, snout, nostrils, neck, underneath their front legs (armpit area), inside their back legs and underneath the tail.

“Basically, anywhere where there’s a little bit thinner skin and easier access to blood supply would be a choice, but you can find a tick anywhere,” she said. “If the dog is a ground-sniffer or well-digger, it’s going to be more head and front legs. If you’re running through the tall grass, it’s going to be more belly, underarms, leg, chest area.”

Lovins said the topical and oral medications work well, and if the pet is using them and is bitten by a tick, they should be in good shape.

“If the tick bit and attached, it should fall off within 24 hours. And studies have shown it takes 24 to 48 hours to spread the disease. So, even if it does attach, if they have these preventatives; the pet should still should remain free from the disease.”

Ocean View Animal Hospital does a yearly heartworm test on clients’ pets — something Lovins said is common. She noted, however, that that test will also show whether or not the animal has been exposed to Lyme.

“It’s great knowledge to have, because you know you either need to step up your preventative game or be on the lookout for clinical signs of the disease and also be aware of the other tick-borne type diseases,” she said, noting that the test doesn’t state whether the animal has active disease or when the exposure occurred.

Moreover, she said, the test can provide valuable information regarding the risk to humans.

“It’s the sentinel for the owner. Less than 5 percent of dogs show clinical signs of Lyme disease or have an illness from it, but 90 percent of people do. So, if your dog tests positive and you walk outside with your dog, there’s a lot of potential there for you.”

If a dog is in active disease, Lovins said, puppies will show signs of polyarthritis, or joint inflammation, but will respond quickly to antibiotics.

Lovins said those pets in active disease are also at risk for Lyme nephritis, which is when the animal’s kidneys are affected by Lyme disease.

“It’s not necessarily that there’s an infection of the kidney, it’s that the antibody complexes that form after exposure affect the kidney negatively, and they get pretty severe kidney disease,” she explained. “Anytime we do get a Lyme positive, we screen kidney function with routine bloodwork and urinalysis.”

The disease is highly treatable in dogs, said Lovins, with antibiotics working the majority of the time.

If owners want to have their pet tested as to whether or not they have active Lyme disease, they can; however, Lovins said it is not something that is done in-house at their practice.

“It’s not extremely selective, but it is useful,” she said.

Prevention will always be key, said Lovins, noting that routine screenings will help determine risk and exposure not only to the pets but also their owners. And, hopefully, help keep both Lyme-free.