April: Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs Month

Remember the childhood rhyme, “April showers bring May flowers?” While that still holds true, at least for the northern half of the U.S., April also heralds in another less welcome guest: ticks!

(Actually, with climate change, ticks are emerging earlier and beginning to extend into new territories. For many pet owners, that’s particularly bad news as that means the chance of your dog — or you — encountering Lyme disease is increased.)

April is “Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs Month,” so now is a good opportunity to talk about what that means to you and your pet.

Lyme disease is not caused by ticks. Rather, it’s caused by a bacteria (Borrellia burdoferi) that is transmitted by ticks — most commonly the deer tick (black-legged tick.) Lyme disease has been around for more than a century, but was not identified in humans in the U.S. until 1975. It’s now considered to be the most common arthropod-borne diseases of humans in America, and among the most common in dogs. It also occurs in horses, cattle, cats, birds and wildlife animals.

Because ticks are parasites, they need a blood host to feed and grow. At each stage of their life cycle they can ingest bacteria-laced blood from an infected source and then transmit it to another host.

Black-legged ticks have a four-stage life cycle. When they first hatch, the larvae primarily feed on small animals like the white-footed mouse. If the mice are infected with the bacteria, the larvae ingest it. After molting into a nymph form, the young ticks again seek a blood host and that’s where humans and dogs come into play. Although still very tiny, the nymphs will latch on to whatever warm-blooded meal comes by, and can transmit the bacteria. After molting into an adult form, the adult black-legged tick can continue to spread the bacteria.

If your canine companion picks up an infected tick and it fastens on and begins to feed, the bacteria can be transmitted. It can take up to 48 hours for this to happen, which means if you have applied a flea and tick topical treatment, like PetArmor Plus, you may kill the ticks before they can feed. Likewise, if you are diligent about checking your dog for ticks after outings in infested areas, you may help prevent the ticks from latching on. However, due to the small size of the ticks (adult ticks are about the size of a sesame seed,) they can be easily overlooked.

In dogs, Lyme disease can cause a host of problems. Your dog may not exhibit signs for several weeks after becoming bitten. Signs might show as fever, lethargy or loss of appetite, painful or swollen joints, swollen lymph nodes or progressively worsening lameness.

Diagnosis is important, but can be tricky and antibiotics are required for recovery. Left untreated, Lyme disease in dogs can lead to damage of the kidneys, heart and nervous system. According to the Merck Manuals, Lyme disease affecting the kidneys is the second most-common syndrome and is usually fatal.

As always, prevention is the best medicine, including:

  • Checking your pet for ticks after an outing (and also to ensure that the ticks don’t migrate to you!)
  • Use of flea and tick topicals
  • Vaccinating against Lyme disease (talk to your veterinarian.)
  • You can also limit exposure through careful landscaping of your own property

Let’s keep April for showers and keep the ticks at bay! That ensures that May…and the rest of your year…is happy and healthy for you and your pet.

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