With tick season in full spring swing, it’s time to think about protecting your family members—including your pets—from ticks and Lyme disease. Lyme disease occurs when a tick carrying the Borrelia burdorferi bacterium bites and infects the victim. Early symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, trouble concentrating and/or a skin rash. While most cases are easily treated with antibiotics, if left undiagnosed or untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart or nervous system1.
2017 reported a record number of cases of Lyme disease. Researchers speculate that one reason for the uptick could be because ticks are expanding their habitats. Reforestation efforts in big cities, like New York, and increased development of suburbs, bring humans in closer contact to ticks more often.2
The best way to avoid getting Lyme disease is to avoid ticks. As far as researchers know, the only way to get Lyme disease is through a tick bite. (Scientists have determined that the bacteria can survive in blood stored for transfusions, though there is no known case of transmission via transfusions.) 3
Two types of ticks carry the bacterium, the deer tick in the north central and eastern parts of the U.S., and the western black legged tick in the north central and eastern parts of the United States.3
Ticks live in humid wooded and grassy areas, as well as around homes in bushes. They require a place away from direct sunlight and a place to hide, so the cleaner and sunnier you keep your yard, the less appealing ticks will find it.
When venturing out for a hike, stay in the center of trails, away from brush along the sides.
Wear a bug repellent and when you return home, bathe and check for ticks. Check inconspicuous areas like the belly button, underarms and hair. Inspect your gear and wash the clothing you wore. If you brought your dog along, check him/her thoroughly for ticks as well. If you do find a tick, don’t panic. If the tick is attached for less than 48 hours, Lyme infection is less likely to occur.1
Remove and dispose of ticks
Should you find a tick that’s not attached to your skin, soak it in alcohol, place in a zip top bag or flush it down the toilet. If a tick is attached, remove it as soon as possible. Pinching the tick’s head with tweezers as close to the skin as possible, remove the tick by pulling steadily upward. If any parts remain in the skin, remove them with tweezers and dispose of the tick.
Look for symptoms
Infections typically surface within 30 days of the bite of an infected tick. Fever, headache, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes are common and may or may not occur with an erythema mirgrans rash. This rash:
See your doctor
If you experience symptoms after a tick bite or possible tick exposure, let your doctor know. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and a western blot test can pick up antibodies a few weeks after infection.
Doctors typically use antibiotics to treat the condition, but a small percentage of patients go on to have symptoms that last more than six months. This condition, called Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome, may require extended treatment.
Post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS)
Around 10% of patients treated with antibiotics continue to experience generalized fatigue, pain, joint and muscle aches. Researchers aren’t sure what is causing these prolonged symptoms, but speculate there may be an auto-immune element. 5
Lyme disease in dogs and cats
Lyme disease in dogs and cats is transmitted by ticks, just like in humans. Symptoms of the disease in dogs include:
Cats often don’t exhibit symptoms, but when they do, they include:
Diagnosis is typically made through a clinical exam, and dogs and cats can expect to make a full recovery with antibiotics.6
A vaccine for humans was developed and found to be safe and extremely effective, and was marketed by SmithKline Beecham in the late 90’s into the early 2000’s. Unfortunately the vaccine came out just as anti-vaccine sentiment was rising. Though there was no evidence the vaccine was unsafe, SmithKline Beecham chose to remove it from the market due to lagging sales and mounting lawsuits from people claiming the vaccine was causing joint pain (contrary to all studies.)7
However, dogs, but not cats, can receive effective vaccines against the disease.