Last Updated: 8-22-2019
Ticks are very common here on the North Shore of Boston. They are found in every city and town here in Massachusetts and continue to become more common in New Hampshire and Maine. There are sometimes hundreds of ticks just waiting in the brush and grasses to join us. Being pet owners is a plus as having the awareness and knowledge of ticks and the disease that they can transmit is helpful for our safety.
Tick borne diseases continue to challenge researchers and patients alike. In addition to the Lyme organism, borrelia burgdorferi, we also face anaplasma, ehrlichia and even Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever risks here in New England. Researchers are dedicated to learning about these organisms and finding ways to prevent the many disease states that can come about with their presence.
Here at BANHC, we have started to do routine screening for the three most common tick diseases; Lyme (borrelia), Ehrlichia and Anaplamsa when we do our annual heartworm screening tests as recommended by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM). This test is called a 4DX test representing the 4 diseases it screens for.
If the animal tests positive for any of the tick diseases, it means that is has detected an antibody to the tick organism. This is essentially a memory of the body having seen the organism. It does not equate with disease. We let you know that your dog has been exposed to the lyme organism or other tick borne disease at some point.
If we are talking about being lyme +, these asymptomatic dogs (>85%) may remain asymptomatic for years. Some will become symptomatic but most do not. It is possible for the pet’s immune system to prevent those organisms from causing the inflammatory response that causes the disease. If your animal tests positive for lyme, we advise checking a urine sample to look for protein. This inflammatory marker can let us know if we need to treat with doxycycline or not. If your dog has protein in its urine, we will most definitely treat with doxycycline and also recommend Omega fish oils. Depending on the patient, we may also advise additional diagnostic tests.
At this time, we do not recommend treatment with antibiotics for asymptomatic dogs for a number of reasons. Doxycycline is not without risk, most commonly gastrointestinal upset but can also contribute to antibiotic resistance issues. Studies done show that even after multiple rounds of antibiotics, the borrelia organism can still be detected in the blood making it questionable to treat asymptomatic as one cannot get a “negative”test after treatment. It is a misconception that every positive dog needs to be treated and can lead to confusion about the disease. And once a dog is successfully treated for lyme disease, it sadly can develop the disease at another time from another tick bite. The 4Dx test may also remain positive for years yet require no further treatment due to the animal’s antibody “memory”. Some animal’s immune systems have stronger memory than others.
Check out this paper for the American College of Veterinary Medicine (ACVIM) consensus on Lyme disease.
If your animal tests positive for lyme and either anaplasma or ehrlichia, (co-infection), we will recommend a complete blood count to assess the platelets which may be affected with these tick born diseases. If there is a low platelet count (thrombocytopenia), we will treat with doxycycline and recheck the bloodwork to make sure response to treatment. These are sometimes called “silent infections” as the animal may not show signs until advanced stages.
If a dog becomes symptomatic from the borrelia organism, the most classical presentation is fever, depression and joint swelling. These symptoms tend to occur weeks, not days after a tick bite. On average, it can take 60 to 150 days between a tick bite and signs of lameness.
We would run a 4dx whenever we suspect that a patient has a tick borne disease. Additional tests such as a quantitate c6 or tick polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing may be done. In addition to a urine sample, we may be testing the blood to assess kidney function. Other tests such as radiographs, joint taps and other blood tests may be performed to acquire more information.
The prognosis is generally excellent for dogs diagnosed with clinical lyme disease. Cats do not get lyme disease except in experimental scenarios. Our canine patients with good immune systems also do not get chronic lyme disease.
To decrease your dogs risk of tick borne disease, we need to decrease the chance of allowing a tick to have a blood meal on your dog. Some suggestions:
- Use tick control every day of the year. We recommend the oral three month chew, Bravecto for all our canine patients 6 months and older. For young growing pups, we recommend the monthly chew Credelio as all the chews are based on very specific weight classes. The chews kill the tick when it tries to take a blood meal. The best tick is a dead tick!
- Although our cats do not contract tick diseases commonly, they can have the topical Bravecto so they do not bring live ticks into the home. We believe the safety of Bravecto and use it on all our own pets.
- Stay away from heavy grass/brush areas. If in large wooded parks, try to stay on the dirt roads or paths.
- Some may think it’s goofy, but have your dog wear a t-shirt to cover the large trunk that can be exposed. Make sure you wear long pants, socks and long sleeves too when hiking!
- Check your dog after every “woods” exposure. Daily is best especially when the ticks are most active in spring and fall.
- We also sell Tick Off, an essential oil spray to help repel ticks. IT can be used on people as well. Never around the face with any species.
- We do not recommend the Lyme vaccine at this time as we focus more on tick control due to the other tick born diseases that we see.
How to remove a tick from your pet
To remove a tick, use tweezers or small forceps to pull the tick straight upward. Alcohol, matches and other methods should not be used. The tick does NOT have a separate “head” so that cannot be left in the dog. If anything, there may be a small hook like appendage but the dog will work that out as if it were a splinter. Some animals may have a red area at the site of the bite. This does not mean that they will develop Lyme disease. It just means that their skin is more sensitive.