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Published on April 2, 2015
Lyme disease is the fastest growing vector-borne disease in the United States. In Virginia the incidence of reported cases in people has quadrupled over the last ten years. We have seen equal rises in the number of Lyme positive dogs with 1 in 9 dogs in Fairfax County, Virginia now testing positive for Lyme Disease. Our suburban yards and green spaces, flanked by small patches of woods, have proved the perfect habitat for mice and deer, the common carriers of deer tick larvae and adults. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the first case of Lyme disease in a household, whether in a pet or a child, should serve as a red flag for the risk of exposure for all family members, and their physicians and veterinarians should be notified so they can advise about further evaluation or testing. As veterinarians facing the escalating Lyme epidemic, our recommendations for treatment and prevention of disease in dogs (and their people) are:
Excellent tick control in the environment and on your pet is THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY to prevent Lyme disease, as well as other tick borne diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Ehrlichiosis.
Use quality tick preventative products on your pets: Larval deer ticks are tiny and very difficult to spot, even on people. It is thought that most people who contract Lyme disease do so from larval ticks. On a dog with all its fur, even adult deer ticks can be difficult to find. This is why we must depend on preventative products for our pets that can effectively reach each tick, no matter where it is hidden.
We recommend the oral chewable Nexgard (very tasty!) or oral chewable Simparica every 30 days. It is important to use these products 12 months a year in Virginia , at intervals as recommended by the manufacturer. There are many other tick products available, but these are our favorites because they have reliably provided effective tick control for our patients and our own pets.
Check your dog for ticks when coming in from the yard or after a day hike: Ticks tend to crawl upward until they hit an obstruction like your pet’s armpit, groin fold, a collar or base of the ear, so be especially diligent checking these spots.
Decrease the number of ticks in your pet’s (and your) environment: Mice are the intermediate host for the larval form of the deer tick, so removing scrub and yard debris that are attractive homes for these rodents can be helpful. Consider where and when you walk your dog. Avoid high grasses and thick underbrush by keeping your dog on a leash.
Vaccinate against Lyme disease: Since we can never completely eradicate the risk of tick exposure, we recommend vaccinating all dogs against Lyme disease, preferably BEFORE they are exposed, i.e. as puppies. A previously unvaccinated pet must receive two initial vaccines, given 3-4 weeks apart. Then he or she should receive an annual booster. In puppies, we generally start the Lyme vaccination series between 14-16 weeks of age. Vaccination will make your pet’s immune system more competent against the Lyme bacteria should he or she be exposed. This is the best chance your pet has to remain asymptomatic.
Test, treat early and monitor: We recommend an annual heartworm/tick titer test. For most dogs, the first time they test positive for Lyme disease, we will treat with 3-4 weeks of antibiotics even if there are no symptoms. The antibiotics used for Lyme disease are relatively inexpensive and have minimal undesirable side effects. The decision to treat or not may depend on other health issues your dog has, but in general we feel it is wise to be proactive in treating for Lyme disease. We also like to initiate routine urine screenings to monitor for protein in the urine, the first symptom of the very rare kidney form of Lyme disease. We know dogs that test positive are likely to continue to encounter infected ticks, so we do recommend vaccinating and continuing to vaccinate the asymptomatic pet to boost his or her immune response against the Lyme bacteria.
If your pet presents with clinical signs of Lyme disease (favoring a leg or limping), we recommend prompt testing for the disease, even if past tests have been negative. Again, this enables us to treat more aggressively early on. Once clinical disease has passed, we will discuss vaccination against Lyme disease.
Let us work with you to protect all your family members, canine and human, from disease. Excellent tick control is the single most important way to avoid exposure to the Lyme bacteria. It is crucial in a Lyme endemic state like Virginia to practice consistent and effective tick control using quality tick repellent and acaricidal products such as Nexgard and Simparica. In addition, vaccinating your dog is a very effective way to reduce the likelihood of symptomatic infection. Remember that even if your pet doesn’t get sick from Lyme disease, once infected he or she still serves as a reservoir for Lyme disease for any future tick that attaches. And that tick may later get on you.