Guest blog by Dr. William St. Lawrence, Village Square Veterinarian, Portola Valley Village Square
May is Lyme Awareness month but it is only the beginning of peak season in the Bay Area for the troublesome nymphal blacklegged ticks that can carry Lyme disease. As we come to the final days of the month, it is not time to let down your guard.
In this guest post, popular local veterinarian Dr. William St. Lawrence shares some important facts about keeping you and your pets safe for the rest of this spring and early summer.
Lyme Disease and Your Pets
Lyme is a spirochettsial disease (the bacteria is Borrelia burgdorferi), spread by ticks. Although Lyme disease is not as prevalent on the west coast as the east coast, the northern coast of California is one area that has a moderate amount of the disease. Here on the west coast, the Lyme vector is the Ixodes pacificus tick. Unfortunately, although it prefers to feed on reptiles, the tick will attach to dogs and people.
It is almost impossible to prevent a pet or a human to be totally tick-free their whole lives. There is simply too much exposure to natural tick habitats, particularly amongst the enticing natural landscapes we enjoy here in the greater Bay Area. Removing a tick within 48 hours of attachment typically prevents the transmission of Borrelia burgdorferi and with responsible tick-checks and “good grooming habits,” people will generally find ticks and remove them quickly. Cats are also good groomers and probably do not let ticks attach very often. Unfortunately, dogs are at greater risk for both ticks and Lyme disease, though they are not always symptomatic. Horses come into frequent contact with ticks but are generally immune to infection, though they can help transport the ticks into proximity with humans.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of tick control for pets to help in the prevention of Lyme disease in people. Making sure that any tick that attaches to your pet is going to die is an important part of stopping a tick from attaching to you, the pet owner, or any of your other family members.
So What to Do?
Currently there are many products available to kill ticks once they attach and start feeding. Frontline, Nexgard, Bravecto, Advantix II, Promeris and Vectra 3D are some of the products that kill ticks before the Borrelia burgdorferi can be transmitted to your pet. And tick collars are getting better.
It is important to have realistic expectations of the drugs listed above. The tick must attach and start feeding to be killed by the medicine. None of the above products are barriers to the tick getting on and attaching to your pet. A lot of people are under the perception that the prescription flea and tick medication should prevent a tick from getting on their pet. The owners are disappointed and frustrated with the products due to a false knowledge of the abilities of flea and tick medication.
To reiterate, no flea or tick medication is a barrier that stops a tick from getting on your pet. The purpose of all the above products is to kill or at least incapacitate the tick such that no Borrelia burgdorferi can be transmitted to your pet. It is important that you continue to regularly tick-check your dog and remove any ticks that you discover.
How to Remove a Tick
What if even with your best efforts — applying appropriate medications and searching for ticks after a hike or run — one of the little buggers actually does make it to your dog’s skin and needs to be taken out. What is the best way?
We like to remove ticks with a tick removal device that looks like the claw of a hammer. You place the device on the skin with the opening of the claw of the device where the tick is attached to the skin. Slowly and steadily move the device and claw under the tick and lift off. No need to flush the tick down the toilet (save the water!). You can wrap the tick in a tissue and crush the tick.
Tweezers also work well but be careful not to decapitate the tick. If the tick does get decapitated and you cannot get the head out or are concerned some part of the tick is left under the skin, call your regular veterinarian for advice. No Borrelia burgdorferi can be transmitted once the tick is dead. A tick without its body is very dead.
The Lyme vaccine is controversial. We reserve the vaccine for our patients that are going to the east coast for extended vacations or to live there. UC Davis Veterinary School does not recommend the vaccine in the bay area at this time. The infection is relatively rare, the treatment is generally effective for pets, and the vaccine has a potential to be harmful.
Symptoms and Treatment
What happens if you as a pet owner have done everything in your power to prevent ticks from attaching and infecting your pet but still your dog gets Lyme disease? What does a dog sick with Lyme look like and what should you do? (Remember cats do not get Lyme and horses get Lyme very rarely).
Monitor your dog’s health. An important aspect of Lyme is the dormant stage. Usually a dog does not get sick imm
ediately from Borrelia burgdorferi infection or Lyme disease. It can takes weeks to months for the initial signs to develop. Most dogs will be lame and sore in multiple joints, run a fever, and be lethargic. If the dog has repeated exposure to ticks, you will want to pay careful attention as the number of ticks will increase the risk of infection.
Talk to your vet. Confirming that the clinical signs are due to Lyme disease can be difficult, as dogs are generally well adapted to Borrelia burgdorferi and most of the time will not be made sick by the infection. The exposure to Borrelia burgdorferi will produce an immune response and subsequently a titer that can be read in the lab with a blood sample. However, the art of the diagnosis is differentiating the sick from the exposed. If you see signs of lameness or lethargy in your dog (or horse), be sure to discuss these symptoms with your veterinarian.
We have only scratched the surface of Lyme disease. Please talk to your regular veterinarian regarding your pet’s unique situation to determine how best to prevent Lyme disease.