Lyme disease is a tick-borne bacterial disease which affects both humans and animals. The disease is caused by bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which are transmitted to humans and dogs following a bite from an infected tick. It’s the most common tick borne disease in Europe, and the number of reported human cases has risen dramatically in the UK in recent years, with an increase of over 300% since the year 2000*. And with a recent survey showing that 15% of dogs are carrying ticks**, unknown to their owners, the risk to our pets can’t be ignored.
Which dogs are at risk?
Ticks are found practically everywhere, from forests to gardens to vegetation on beaches. Tick numbers tend to be higher in certain areas, such as woodland, moorland, rough pasture and heathland. Urban/city parks, especially larger parks where deer are present, are also suitable habitats for ticks. So if you regularly go walking in this type of area, your dog could be at significant risk of picking up an infected tick.
Signs of Lyme disease.
The disease is transmitted when an infected tick climbs on to the dog and starts to feed. The process of disease transmission generally takes around 48 hours, although it can occur more rapidly. In some dogs, infection does not cause any harmful effects but in others, a variety of signs can be seen. The most common signs are fever, lethargy, losing interest in food, lameness and joint swellings. The disease can also affect the nervous system and the heart. In rare cases, serious kidney problems can develop which are very difficult to treat. These signs can take a long time to develop, sometimes several months, after a dog is bitten by an infected tick.
Diagnosis and treatment.
Diagnosis can be difficult, as the signs are similar to a wide range of other diseases, but blood tests to measure immunity levels to Borrelia can be useful. Other tests are available which can detect the bacteria in tissue samples, such as skin or joint tissue. Treatment usually consists of antibiotics, plus anti-inflammatories to control the painful lameness which can be seen. Although treatment usually gives rapid results in the short term, it is very difficult to get rid of the bacteria, and relapses can occur. Prevention is certainly better than cure.
There are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of Lyme disease for your dog. Vaccination is an important way of protecting your pet and a vaccine against Lyme disease has recently become available in the UK. Reducing exposure to ticks is also important. Using an appropriate tick control product is essential. There are a variety of products available and we can advise you on the most appropriate products to use on your pet. Avoiding high risk areas, particularly during periods of peak tick activity during Spring and Autumn, can help. Carefully examining your dog after walks to identify and then remove ticks is important, as removal of ticks within 48 hours of attachment helps to reduce the risk of disease transmission. And don’t forget that Lyme disease affects humans too, so take appropriate steps to protect yourself against ticks, such as covering up exposed skin and checking yourself carefully for ticks.
Health Protection Agency. www.hpa.org.uk
** Prevalence, distribution and risks associated with ticks infesting dogs. Smith et al. Medical and Veterinary Entomology (2011) 25, 377–384