Tick Disease: Veterinarians Ahead of Doctors


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a year ago (August, 2013) that the centers’ own estimates, based on surveys of the public, medical claims and laboratory test results, suggest that only 1 in 10 cases of Lyme disease are reported nationwide — 30,000 reported cases compared with 300,000 actual cases.

Lyme disease, no doubt, continues to be under-reported. And if this is all true for people, it’s true for dogs as well, since dogs are thought to be equally as susceptible to Lyme.

Human researchers are only now beginning to understand that for people Lyme may be dormant, silent and without symptoms for even 20 years or more before surfacing. Obviously, that’s not the case for dogs.

But like in people Lyme disease can impact quality of life in dogs far more quickly, and significantly.

What’s more Lyme may not arrive alone, a cocktail of infectious agents may be delivered by ticks, including  Ehrlichia and/or anaplasmosis, right along with Lyme.

Arguably veterinarians are better able to detect and more aware of these other infectious agents than human physicians. In fact, veterinarians have been talking about the seriousness of Lyme disease, and the extraordinary boom in tick population numbers for years, including the Companion Animal Parasite Council.

Lyme is caused by spiral-shaped bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans by what are commonly referred to as deer ticks, often in the nymph stage. Because nymphal ticks are about the size of a poppy seed, tick bites often go unnoticed in people or pets. Most people develop a characteristic bull’s-eye rash within a week or two of infection, but a substantial proportion do not. In pets, under all that fur, you can’t see what’s there anyway.

Other signs of Lyme disease may not appear until later; the most common are flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue and muscle aches. If dogs are a tad achy and/or run a slight fever, and feel “just off,” they have no way to tell us. This is another reason why protection and therefore prevention is so important.

Though a short course of antibiotics cures most patients at early stages, later on the disease becomes far more difficult to identify and treat and can lead to chronic fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and neurological problems, perhaps heart problems – in people and dogs.

Standard tests for Lyme disease are designed to detect whether a patient’s blood contains antibodies against Borrelia burgdorferi. Yet immune responses vary among patients, and the presence of antibodies doesn’t necessarily indicate an active infection.

In dogs, the test for Lyme as well as for Ehrlichia and anaplasmosis – and as a bonus heartworm-  (from IDEXX) is pretty darn sensitive, and inexpensive. Some feel that Lyme is so common (as are other tick diseases) that the test ought to be standard of care, and I agree.

Lyme disease remains under-reported in people for many reasons. Sometimes people never seek medical care, or assume they’re just getting older (when they feel achy). Doctors are a problem too, as some continue not looking for Lyme. If they don’t look for it, they’re not likely to find it. Other times, physicians do indeed diagnose and even treat Lyme but never report it to the CDC.

In veterinary medicine, there’s nothing controversial or “political” about tick disease. But in human medicine, tick disease is a hot button, but the controversy doesn’t seem to benefit patients.

Some physicians adhere strictly to CDC guidelines in making diagnoses, while others may rely on different types of lab tests or interpret the tests more broadly. Even the very existence of chronic Lyme disease is also debated by some physicians, as is the treatment of chronic cases with long-term antibiotics.

In people, prevention may be the only area of consensus. Again, the veterinary world is ahead of the curve. With excellent products (see your veterinarian for recommendations) and even vaccines, we can do more to prevent tick disease (Lyme in particular) in our dogs than we can ourselves. Learn more HERE about protecting dogs.

Here are some Lyme disease prevention tips for people:

  • Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Light-colored clothing makes ticks easier to spot.
  • Use insect repellents that contain 20 to 30 percent DEET.
  • When hiking, stay in the middle of the trail. Avoid brush and grassy areas.
  • Check yourself and your pets for ticks after spending time outdoors.
  • Shower and wash clothes as soon as possible.
  • If you find a tick, remove it carefully with fine-pointed tweezers; a tick must be attached for at least a day to transmit Lyme disease. Save the tick for identification. (this is also true if you find a tick on your dog)