Ick, a tick! Many people are familiar with Lyme disease because it is endemic in our area. Lyme disease is an infection caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. In Northern Virginia, this infection is spread by the black-legged or deer tick. These ticks are a particular nuisance because of their small size. In people, they are often mistaken for a freckle or a mole, and in our furry friends they may be overlooked entirely. Once these ticks attach and feed, they can transmit the Lyme bacteria through their saliva. Within our practice, about 25% of unvaccinated dogs will be exposed to the Lyme disease causing bacteria, but a much smaller percentage will develop clinical Lyme disease.
The main symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are fever, lethargy and lameness. Dogs may develop a red rash at the tick bite site, but it is far less common than in people. Some dogs may be so uncomfortable from the fever and joint pain that they will refuse to move. This can cause Lyme disease to be mistaken for a back or neck injury and paralysis. In rare cases, Lyme disease can affect the kidneys, a condition called Lyme nephritis. Dogs with Lyme nephritis may refuse food and may drink or urinate more. While the fever and joint pain can be rapidly resolved with a course of antibiotics (usually doxycycline), kidney damage is permanent and can be life threatening. Unfortunately, antibiotics also cannot totally eliminate the bacteria from the body, so infected dogs can have relapses and may experience some chronic problems.
The best treatment for Lyme disease is prevention, and April is Lyme disease prevention month! In our dogs, prevention is a two pronged approach involving both vaccination and the use of flea and tick preventatives. There are several safe and effective Lyme vaccines on the market for dogs. These vaccines do a good job of preventing infection, and may even prevent problems with re-infection that can occur in already Lyme positive animals. The vaccines are a two shot series initially, and must be boostered annually to be effective. We recommend the Lyme vaccine for any dogs that are at risk for tick exposure and all Labs and Goldens (breeds at higher risk for Lyme disease). April is a great month to get Lyme vaccinated before the peak tick season of the warmer months!
The second important aspect of Lyme prevention is tick control. Keeping ticks off your dog is important even if they are Lyme vaccinated becauseticks can spread other diseases, and because we want to avoid those ticks coming into contact with you and your family. Topical products Iike Frontline, Vectra or Advantage are commonly used, effective preventatives. They are safe, easy to apply, and relatively inexpensive. The disadvantage of these topicals is that they take a little longer to kill ticks (and fleas), and so you may see ticks on your pet even if you use these products. Newer systemic treatments like Nexguard, Bravecto and Serresto offer faster killing times and may be better at preventing attachment. Nexguard is a once a month oral pill, and Bravecto once every three months. Because they are administered orally, both these products are completely waterproof, and are my recommendation of choice for any dogs with an active outdoor lifestyle. I also recommend them for families with small children, because it limits exposure to the chemicals and may decrease the likelihood of pets bringing ticks into the home. Serresto is a collar with a slow-release systemically absorbed medication. It is effective at controlling fleas and ticks, and one collar lasts 8 months. Serresto is a great option if you have a hard time remembering monthly tick control!
Experts have forecasted an increase in Lyme disease rates this year, so take the time this April to make sure your dog is protected. Give us a call if you have any questions about Lyme disease or how best to protect your pet!