Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs + Killing Ticks: The Facts!
Preventing Lyme disease in dogs is definitely preferable to your dog developing a painful infectious arthritis or one of the other serious complications associated with Lyme disease infection.
Before we can prevent Lyme disease in dogs though, we need to know just what it is.
What causes Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borelia burgdorferi and is transmitted by tick bites. It is not just a dog problem and can cause infection in a large range of animals, including humans. Rodents though, are generally the most common reservoir of the infection. Once an animal becomes infected, the bacteria multiplies and then spreads to other parts of the body.
In dogs the joints are the most common places that the bacteria travels to where it results in a nasty infectious arthritis. It can though also cause problems and damage to the lymph nodes, muscles, eyes, kidneys, brain and heart resulting in conditions like meningitis and kidney failure.
Thankfully, these other complications of infection are pretty rare.
Before I move on to talk about why ticks and why Lyme disease is becoming more common, it's important to mention just how much of a threat Lyme disease is.
In areas where the disease is widespread and everywhere, about 75% (or 3 in every 4 dogs) will become infected. Of these thankfully only 5-10% will ever show signs of Lyme disease. This is clearly still a significant number of dogs but for the rest, the bodies immune system does its job and protects the body from infection.
Why are ticks becoming more common?
Now that's out of the way, just why are ticks and Lyme disease becoming more of a problem? Especially in areas where infection was previously rare or unheard of?
One clear explanation is global warming. As winters shorten and the average temperature increases, ticks are able to survive and spread into areas that were previously too harsh for them to call home. They also emerge from their winter homes earlier and so the tick season becomes longer, increasing the chance of your dog coming across them on their walks.
The local wildlife population will also play a role. If there are more of the ticks preferred hosts around, typically rodents, then there will be more ticks. Equally when there is more food for these rodents, such as years when there is a bumper acorn crop, their numbers will increase. There are likely many different, inter-related reasons for the changes we are seeing but one thing is for certain, ticks and Lyme disease do appear to be becoming more common in many parts of the world.
All this means that while you may never have needed worry about ticks or Lyme disease in the past, they may very well now be a problem in your local area. The best thing you can do is talk to your veterinarian to get an update on the individual risk to your dog.
Preventing Lyme disease in dogs
So then, just what can you do to help reduce the risk of your dog becoming infected with Lyme disease? There is no single answer. Instead implementing a few simple management techniques can seriously reduce the risk of your dog becoming sick.
How to prevent tick bites on dogs
Clearly, because Lyme disease is spread by ticks, the main way to prevent Lyme disease in dogs is to prevent tick bites in the first place. This is not easy but we can definitely reduce the risk of tick bites with several different strategies.
Avoid high tick areas
Clearly the first step is to try and prevent being bitten by ticks in the first place. Simply avoid known tick hot spots. These include deciduous forests and areas with tall grass and vegetation like bracken. These areas contain a lot of wildlife for the ticks to live off and the vegetation helps protect the ticks from harsh weather and while they lay dormant over winter.
Unfortunately this is often not easy and the hot spot areas may equally not be known. If you do walk your dog in areas like these though you know that you need to be extra vigilent to the threat of ticks.
Use tick prevention on your dog
The next step to help prevent Lyme disease in your dog is to use a product that either kills or repels ticks. We can break these down into the 3 main effective products (click the links to check out their prices on Amazon):
Oral tablets like Bravecto, Nexgard and Simparica
As for which is best for your pet, it depends on their lifestyle and your preference. The topical spot-on preparations work reasonably well but in my experience with my parents spaniel living in a high tick area, as well as my clients dogs, the newer options available to us are even better at killing ticks.
The oral tablets mentioned above all contain a relatively new class of treatment available to dogs. It is incredible effective at killing ticks and, depending on the product, lasts from 1-3 months.
The downside of these products you might have thought about is that they require a tick to bite the dog before they are then killed. This takes place within 24 hours. This might then sound as though they won't help prevent Lyme disease but in fact Lyme disease is only transmitted very slowly and it takes about 24 - 48 hours for an infective dose of the Lyme disease bacteria to be transmitted to a dog (although there are reports of is taking less than 16 hours in some cases).
Moving onto the Seresto collar. This is a special plastic collar that lasts for up to 8 months and slowly releases the active ingredient into the oil layer of the dogs coat and skin. This then has the effect of killing ticks when they bite. It also repels them and so can prevent bites in the first place.
There are 2 important points to remember with the Seresto collar. It is very important that it is put on as instructed. If it is too loose then it may not be working as well as it could. Also if your dog spends a lot of time in the water then it may be better to remove the collar when they swim. The odd swim or getting wet in the rain is not a concern at all.
People will talk about other products such as shampoos and powders or other "natural" remedies. In all honesty though these are ineffective at preventing ticks to any significant degree and are best avoided.
Check your dog for ticks
So those are the preventative treatment options to help kill ticks and prevent Lyme disease infection. My next tip is to closely check your dog every day and remove any ticks that you come across. Even if you are using one of the preventatives I've just been discussing. Nothing in life is 100% and so removing any ticks you find is also a very important step.
While ticks can be found anywhere on the body, the main areas to focus on in my experience are:
around the head
under their collar
armpits and groin
A systemic approach when checking your dog for ticks is vital to make sure that you don't miss an area where a tick might be feasting on your dog.
I personally love the O'Tom tick twisters that hook under the tick and when turned cause the tick to let go. They are simple to use and work really well, even for very small ticks. They cause the tick to let go without the risk of leaving mouth-parts behind.
If you don't have one of these then use tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull up. You might leave some mouth parts behind and these may cause a small lump but nothing more serious is likely to happen.
You certainly don't need to mess around coating a tick in lotions and potions or setting them alight to get rid of them! In fact, these latter methods can actually cause the tick to regurgitate back into your dog making a tick bite infection more likely.
Lyme disease vaccination
As a final preventative measure, there is a vaccination available against Lyme disease. Ideally a dog should be vaccinated before they have had any exposure to Lyme disease as it is not known how effective the vaccine is after a dog has been exposed to the disease. It is known though that the vaccine is of no benefit for those dogs already infected. Again, vaccination does also not provide 100% protection from disease and so tick prevention remains a vital step, even in vaccinated dogs.
Another reason that tick bite prevention is really important is that, depending on where you are in the world, there are lots of other diseases spread by ticks. These can cause problems like paralysis, severe anemia and seizures.
Avoiding tick areas, using preventative medications and quick tick removal are vital steps in any area where ticks and tick borne disease is present
Protect yourself from Lyme disease
Remember too that Lyme disease can infect people so tick prevention with long trousers, using repellents such as those containing DEET or icaridin (some clothes are even impregnated with insect repellents!), gaiters and checking yourself for ticks is also very important!
If you follow these Lyme disease prevention tips you will greatly reduce the risk of your dog becoming unwell from infection. It is still very important though to know the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs as even with all these tips, preventing Lyme disease in dogs is not guaranteed.
Knowing what to look out for can ensure your dog gets the treatment they need as soon as possible should they develop Lyme disease.
Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs
So then, what are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs you should look out for? Well the first point to make is that the disease can be slow to develop, taking weeks or months to appear after an infected tick bite.
Once signs of infection are showing, you might notice a range of symptoms. These include lameness with painful + swollen joints, stiffness and muscle pain might also be present. Your dog will also likely develop a high temperature and go off their food.
If more than the joints are affected then you might notice nervous problems due to meningitis such as neck pain, stiffness and even seizures. If the kidneys are damaged then you may see vomiting and diarrhea, you might notice an increase in drinking and urination and your pet losing weight and being generally unwell. Vision problems can also develop and if the heart is affected you might notice weakness and collapse.
How to diagnose Lyme disease in dogs
Clearly if any of these signs of Lyme disease are present in your dog you should consult your veterinarian straight away. They will asses your pet and do any testing they feel appropriate. As you can imagine, the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are not very specific and could be due to a number of different conditions that your vet may want to rule out. This may mean your pet needs x-rays, joint fluid sampling as well as blood and urine testing in the first instance.
When it comes to specifically diagnosing Lyme disease in dogs, this can be tricky. Most commonly, your vet will run an antibody test. This measures a specific part of the bodies immune system that responds to infection. The problem is though that it can take several months for the antibodies to become high and once high then they can persist for a couple of years.
What this means is that your vet may want to repeat the test a few weeks later if the antibody levels are low to see if they are increasing. If a single test shows high antibody levels then this means that the dog is either currently infected or was infected within the last couple of years.
Lyme disease treatment
Based on all this information, when infection is felt likely, or even just a possibility, treatment can be started. Thankfully the treatment of Lyme disease in dogs is relatively straight forward. Antibiotics can be given. Most dogs will respond within 1-2 days. If there is no response in a week then the diagnosis may need to be reassessed. At the same time pain killers should be given.
It is also important that treatment is continued for long enough to ensure the infection is completely cleared. This can take some time. If the infection has caused problems elsewhere, such as in the kidneys, then other specific treatments might be needed. Each case needs to be assessed and monitored individually.
I hope all this information has given you some answers to any questions you might have had about ticks and Lyme disease in dogs. I would encourage you to talk to your veterinary team about the risk in your specific area and come up with a preventative strategy that is best for your dog and lifestyle.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about preventing Lyme disease in dogs. I would also love to know where you are and if you think ticks are becoming more of an issue in your part of the world.
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