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Lyme Disease, when ticks attack

by User Not Found | Jul 14, 2013

I read the most fascinating article about a guy who has dedicated his life to studying Lyme Disease.  I suppose I can wrap my brain around this bad to the bone little bacteria, but clearly I needed to do some more research to find out what made it worth such a commitment.  My hope was to find an answer to a question I get asked very frequently….how long does a tick have to be attached to transmit disease?

Let’s rewind a bit.  Did you know that Lyme Disease has only been around since 1975? It was actually discovered in a little town called Lyme, Connecticut, Ha! How about that!?  Adults and children complained of a bulls-eye shaped rash followed by arthritic symptoms.  It was originally thought that because these folks lived near the woods, the black-legged or deer tick was the cause of the disease.  This was serious scientific logic.  It wasn’t until 1982 when a man named Willy Burgdorfer discovered that it was actually a bacteria INSIDE the tick that caused Lyme Disease.  And just because it’s cool to have a nasty bacteria named after you, he named it Borrelia burgdorferi.  This bacteria is a spirochete, which means its corkscrew shaped just like another bug we have talked about before, Leptospirosis.  It’s human family member?  Syphillis.  There’s nothing good that could possibly come from something corkscrew shaped, unless we’re trying to get in to a bottle of wine.  Since the discovery of Lyme Disease in humans, it’s occurrence in dogs has been uncovered.  In the 80s, the cases of Lyme in humans and dogs increased dramatically and now it’s one of the most common arthropod-borne diseases.  Interestingly enough, there was a human vaccine available in the late 90s, however rumors spread rapidly that the vaccine was causing Lyme rather than preventing it.  Because of this fear, doctors were reluctant to use it and eventually it was withdrawn from the market due to poor demand.

Lyme Disease has been documented in all 50 states, however 96% of those cases come from just 13 states located in the Northeast and Upper Mid-West.  That’s Wisconsin, Minnesota and most of the New England area for those that are geographically challenged (I had to look it up).  The scary part for us in NC is that it extends down from New England as far as Northern Virginia.  In fact, they are even screening dogs in these areas to conduct surveillance studies.  Ok now for the rundown.

Prevention is best!  Check yourself and your dogs for ticks, every day! Deer ticks are teeny tiny so they can be really hard to see.  Use some kind of preventative on yourself and on your dog, but no sharing, that’s a horrible idea.  And all that stuff about tucking your pant legs in to your socks and wearing light colored clothes, do it!  But be wary, with those fashion tips you might end up on “what not to wear” on TLC.  The only way you can get Lyme Disease is by tick bite and for some time now there has been a debate about how long the tick actually has to be attached to transmit disease.  Well, I am here to give you that answer once and for all.  I’m seriously excited about this because it’s actual data and not just some guess or one of these “I’ve heard that…”

So the spirochete actually lives in the gut of the tick and when the tick attaches and begins to feed, they little buggers actually migrate up from the tick’s gut toward the salivary glands.  From this spot, the spirochete can actually move in to the host and infect it, so, the longer the tick is allowed to feed, the more likely it is that the bug has time to move up and out and into the host, aka, you or your dog.  Therefore, it is believed that there is little to no danger of infection during the first 12 hours of a tick feeding, but beyond this, the RISK of infection increases exponentially.  Now does that mean we only have 12 hours to remove a tick??  Not exactly, remember we are starting at zero risk of infection.  The Center for Disease control says 36-48 hours and most canine focused groups say 24-48 hours to transmit disease.  The moral of this story is, check yourself and your dog for ticks, every day.  The sooner you get them off, the better.

Happily, we screen for Lyme Disease every year when we take our dog to get their Heartworm test.  But you should still watch for symptoms especially this time of year.  Dogs can have sudden lameness or severe pain in their joints.  They may have a fever, not want to eat or are just generally lethargic.  The first stage of human disease is that famous bulls-eye rash but that is rarely seen in dogs.  Although these symptoms can be associated with other illnesses, it can sometimes take two to five months after a tick bite for symptoms to appear.  You should always let your vet know if your dog has been exposed to ticks especially if you know what kind.

There is a vaccine available for dogs, however it does not protect against actual infection.  In other words, it won’t stop a tick from biting your dog and giving him/her the bug.  If your dog is infected with the bug, there is only a 5% chance that he/she will develop Lyme Disease.  With the vaccine, that risk is reduced to about 1%.  For this reason, vaccinating dogs in non-endemic areas is not recommended per the Companion Animal Parasite Council (they must really love parasites).  In addition, vaccinating your dog does not mean you don’t have to use a preventative. Ticks carry other nasty bugs that can infect your precious pooch, and it still warrants you checking your dog for ticks and removing them ASAP.  Ticks can also carry various strains of B. burgdorferi and the vaccine doesn’t cover them all, similar to the human flu vaccine.

I hope you have enjoyed my tour of Lyme, Connecticut.  It’s nice to know that there are people out there studying and researching these types of diseases to keep us and our pets safe.  I am grateful for these researchers because walking thru a field infested with ticks everyday, does not sound like my kind of paying gig.

Happy Hunting!

Katie  

Neuse River Golden Retiever Rescue
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