Summer is here, and along with warmer temperatures comes an influx of ticks. These blood-sucking pests are especially problematic for dogs because ticks can easily grab onto their fur as they romp in tall grasses and are difficult to discover underneath a dog's coat. That's important because if a tick is allowed to remain attached to a dog's skin for more than a day, your furry friend could become a victim of Lyme disease, one of the most common—and serious—tick-borne diseases in the United States. If you find a tick and are not comfortable about removing it yourself, call your veterinarian or take your pup to a local pet emergency hospital quickly.
What Is Lyme Disease?
According to PetMD, Lyme disease is caused by the bite of a deer tick that is infected with a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. Lyme disease has been found in all 50 states, but is more prevalent in the northeast, Midwest and along the Pacific coast.
To spread the disease, a tick must be attached to a host animal—person, dog or other mammal—for at least 18 hours. That's why it's important to check your dog daily for ticks during the warmer months.
What to Look For
As you look your dog over for ticks, search especially well near the head, neck, feet and ear area. However, in severe infestations, they can be found anywhere on a dog's body. When a tick first attaches to a dog's skin, it is visible to the naked eye and will look like a small grey dot. Over the next 5 to 7 days, it will feed on the dog's blood and become engorged—often growing to the size of a pea. The tick will then drop off, digest its blood meal and begin searching for another host. But by that time, if the tick was infected with Lyme disease (or one of many other bacteria a tick can carry), the damage is already done.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease
Fortunately, most dogs show no symptoms of Lyme disease, but for those who do, they can be serious. Usually, symptoms will not appear for 3 to 4 months after infection, which can make it difficult to diagnose the illness. Early signs can be lethargy and loss of appetite. Often the biggest indicator of Lyme disease is recurring lameness because of inflammation of a dog's joints. Joints may be enlarged, warm to the touch and elicit pain when manipulated.
Other signs of infection include fever, stiff gait, weight loss and swollen lymph nodes. One of the most serious complications of Lyme disease is kidney problems. Early signs of kidney involvement include vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, frequent urination and build-up of fluid in the tissues and abdomen. If left untreated, the disease can lead to kidney failure and death.
Diagnosis and Treatment
If you suspect Lyme disease in your dog, your veterinarian will rely mostly on symptoms and a history of likely contact with ticks. If warranted, he or she can perform certain blood tests, checking for antibodies that indicate exposure to the disease. Typically, Lyme disease responds well to a 2 to 4 week antibiotic treatment.
The best method of protecting your pet from Lyme disease is tick control. There are numerous tick control products on the market, from collars to topicals to once-a-month medications. Talk to your vet for guidance on which products are most effective and safe for your animal, and always follow package directions for use. There is also a vaccine available to prevent Lyme disease; however, it is often only recommended if you live in areas with high tick populations and your dog is often outside.
The other method of prevention is quick tick removal. Because it takes at least 18 hours for a tick to inject the Lyme disease agent into your dog, daily grooming and inspecting for ticks is an effective way to avoid the disease. If you find a tick, disinfect the area with rubbing alcohol, gently grab the head of the tick with a tweezers and pull straight up. Place the tick in a small glass bottle along with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol. Your vet may be able to identify whether it is the type of tick that carries Lyme disease. Alternatively, you can take your dog to a veterinarian or 24-hour animal hospital to have the tick removed.