Recognizing and Managing Tick-Borne Diseases In Dogs
Many dogs enjoy a very active outdoorsy lifestyle with their owners. You probably take pride in the fact that you keep your dog strong and healthy by engaging in exercise with him.
You were out hiking with Fido earlier. He was having so much fun running through the trees and tall grass. It was a beautiful day.
After dinner, however, you reach down to pet him while you get ready for bed and notice a strange lump in his fur.
A TICK. It is partially embedded in your dog’s skin and already looks big and swollen.
You recently heard about Lyme disease on the news and start to panic a little. A million questions start running through your mind.
Could your dog get sick? How long has it been there? And how do you get the tick OUT?
What Is A Tick?
Dog ticks are tiny external parasites that attach to a host and make a meal of its blood. They tend to be easily identifiable once you know what you are looking for (and pictures are readily available online if you do not).
Ticks are classified as arachnids (like spiders). There are around 800 species; they first appeared in the fossil record around 90 million years ago.
Ticks have four main life stages that run in a cycle which takes about two months to complete: egg, larvae (which are as small as 1/32 of an inch), nymph, and adult.
Females lay around five thousand eggs on the ground after every feeding cycle. Males generally die after mating.
Some ticks latch on and feed for only about an hour. Then they drop off and go about their reproduction cycle.
Some male ticks can stay stuck to their hosts for up to five years without mating. They will simply engorge themselves at the all-you-can-eat buffet that is a human or pet, then sleep, then wake to feed again.
Some ticks can live for up to a year without a meal. Some must eat every few hours during certain stages of their life (such as when they are nymphs).
Ticks can temporarily halt their reproductive cycle if food is scarce, but they are biologically driven to have babies and so are opportunistic eaters. Most ticks are not concerned with which animal they feed on as long as it has blood.
Unfortunately for their hosts, tick bites are mostly painless but can spell big trouble for humans and their pets. Ticks transmit a number of dangerous diseases through their saliva.
Tick-Borne Illnesses In Dogs
The ticks themselves only pose a minor threat to dogs. They are gross to have to deal with, and their bite may cause some skin irritation and itchiness, but that is about it.
It is the pathogens and organisms living inside the tick that are the problem.
There are some serious illnesses that ticks carry that transmit readily to humans and pets.
Fewer than five percent of tick bites result in any major complications or diseases, however, so if you find a tick on your dog DO NOT PANIC.
Remove it as quickly as you can, clean the site, and watch your dog carefully.
Lyme disease has become a household buzzword, but it is also one of the easier tick-borne illnesses to treat. A quick round of antibiotics and your dog will be as good as new!
Signs of Lyme disease can include fever, joint stiffness and pain (called acute arthritis), and extreme fatigue. Your pet may be reluctant to eat or move if he has developed Lyme disease. During an examination, your vet may find seriously enlarged lymph nodes.
It is transmitted primarily by common deer ticks carrying a spiral-shaped bacteria and is found all over the world. Lyme disease can take up to six months to express itself with symptoms so it generally cannot be caught early, but luckily it tends to respond very well to a course of antibiotics.
There is a Lyme disease vaccination undergoing laboratory testing, but it is currently only available in some areas and to some breeds of dog with no other chronic health conditions.
Canine Ehrlichiosis is spread by dog ticks. The body does not develop a natural immunity to it so a dog infected once can be infected again.
It is characterized by swollen limbs and an unusual inflammation of and discharge from the nose and eyes. Abnormal bruising and bleeding can also be a symptom, but primarily in later stages.
Ehrlichiosis responds quickly to antibiotics (although treatments can include blood transfusions if the infection is severe) but can be fatal if not treated.
Ehrlichiosis is part of a series of tick-borne illnesses caused by the rickettsia bacteria family. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and anaplasmosis are all part of the same series.
Anaplasmosis is also called dog tick fever. It infects white blood cells and makes them unable to fight off infections, so secondary infections are common (hence the ‘fever’ name).
Visible symptoms include recurrent vomiting or diarrhea and lethargy. It is very rare, but in the later stages, neurological problems can develop and may include seizures, tremors, or loss of gross motor function (like walking).
Anaplasmosis is only fatal in less than one percent of cases.
A Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) diagnosis involves debilitating neurological symptoms and oozing skin lesions. Swelling of the face or legs, a chronic cough, and severe abdominal pain are often signs as well.
RMSF is fatal in around ten percent of canine cases so immediate treatment is needed (even if the blood work results are not back from the lab yet!) if your vet suspects it.
Ticks can carry Protozoa that can invade your dog’s body and live and reproduce in his red blood cells. These diseases are harder to treat than bacterial illnesses.
Babesiosis is caused by an intracellular Protozoa transmitted by the black-legged tick. Symptoms include pale gums and vomiting. Babesiosis will eventually result in collapse and lead to death.
It is important to note that babesiosis can also be transmitted by other infected dogs, particularly if they bite yours.
Dogs commonly groom themselves and remove ticks by licking and gnawing them off their skin. Sometimes the tick gets eaten. Unfortunately, this is another common way dogs are infected with pathogen-carrying Protozoa.
Hepatazoonosis can be caused this way, or by eating infected prey like birds or squirrels. Runny eyes and nose, severe muscle pain and fatigue, and bloody mucousy diarrhea are all signs of hepatozoonosis.
Ticks are not the only pest that can make your dog sick. Lice, fleas, sandflies, and mites can all carry disease as well.
One example of illness with multiple vectors is bartonellosis, commonly known as cat-scratch fever. Intermittent lameness, cardiac problems, and high fever are all signs of bartonellosis.
Avoiding Problems From Ticks
Obviously, it makes good sense to try and safeguard your dog against ticks and disease as much as possible. There are a number of safe and effective things you can do at home to minimize his chances of becoming a host.
It is essential that you have your dog on some sort of tick prevention product year-round. There are many types to choose from so you are sure to find one that fits your needs.
You can try:
- Topical treatments. There are sprays, powders, and lotions. Sometimes these come in small tubes of chemical concentrate. These are spread on the shoulder blades and down the back and absorbed into your dog's sweat glands, where it is released slowly to repel ticks.
- Pills that are taken orally. Some of these are multi-purpose and can also help protect your dog against heartworm and some internal parasites like worms. Side effects can include diarrhea or allergic reaction.
- Shampoos that are specially formulated to kill fleas and ticks on contact. They generally require you to keep them wet and lathered up in your pets fur for about fifteen minutes, and do not stop ticks from latching on to your pet again as soon as he goes outside.
- Flea collars that can help kill and repel ticks. These are inexpensive and easily found in pet stores or online.
Ticks are active in various stages of their life cycle in every month of the year, but are at their worst from April to September.
Contrary to popular belief, ticks can not jump, fly, or drop from overhead tree limbs. They must crawl up on to their host from the ground or cling to passing animals walking through tall grass. This is called questing.
For that reason, your plan for avoiding tick-related dog problems should begin in your yard.
It is a good idea to:
- Keep your grass cut very short. Mow the lawn frequently.
- Clear tall patches of weeds and brush.
- Keep fallen leaves raked up and away from your dog.
- Maintain neat wood piles and block them off so your dog can not access them.
- Discourage deer and other wildlife from hanging out around your home.
- Consider spraying your lawn with pesticides. Contact your local authorities with questions or concerns.
Checking your dog for ticks every day and grooming him several times a week is also an effective and important aspect to limiting his potential for contact.
A tick generally tends to transmit disease toward the end of his feeding cycle; catching the problem early results in a lessened chance of your dog getting sick.
Ticks like to hide in warm, moist areas, particularly ones covered in hair or where skin rubs on skin.
When checking your dog for ticks, make sure to check:
- Where his legs join his body (in his armpit)
- Under his collar
- In the groin and around his hind end (especially under his tail)
- His entire ear, especially inside
- Between his toes
- In his jowls and on his face
- On his eyelids
If you find a tick while grooming your dog, it is imperative that you remove it immediately.
To safely remove a tick:
- Wash your hands.
- Use a pair of needle-nosed tweezers. Your vet may instruct you to sanitize them before using to make sure you are not transferring bacteria to an open wound site.
- Grasp the tick firmly as far down its body as you can. You want to ensure that you get the head of the tick out, so gently press into your dog's skin with the edges of the tweezers.
- DO NOT SQUEEZE THE BODY OF THE TICK. This could cause it to regurgitate disease-contaminated blood back into the wound, infecting your dog.
- Pull the tick straight back, firmly and quickly. Twisting the tick may leave the head or mouth parts embedded in your dog’s skin and could cause infection.
- Dispose of the tick in a small cup of rubbing alcohol. Do not try and crush the tick with your fingers.
- Clean the bite with more rubbing alcohol, thoroughly checking for leftover body parts. Allow it to dry, then use antibacterial ointment to avoid infection. Keep the bite wound clean and dry.
- Wash your hands again.
Do not attempt to remove the tick with petroleum jelly, a match, or nail polish remover. Nothing like this - often called ‘hacks’ online - is a safe tool to remove an embedded tick.
If you cannot remove the tick on your own, call your veterinarian. He will likely have a fool-proof method of quickly removing ticks. A quick office visit will ensure your pet is bug-free.
If you find a tick, make sure to watch your dog for signs of illness. Disease transmission is rare, but possible.
Managing And Treating Tick-Borne Illnesses
Early detection and treatment of any illness is CRITICAL to keeping your dog healthy.
Many illnesses develop in phases that follow a uniform pattern:
- The early (or acute) stage consists of either no visible symptoms or only very mild localized symptoms. For instance, the tick bite mark may be inflamed or red. This is the best time to get your dog treatment, of course, but with no signs of illness it is almost impossible to know what to treat. This may also be called the incubation stage, as the bacteria or Protozoa is incubating in your dog’s body.
- The prodromal stage results from the activity of your dog's immune system, which is responding to the spread of the pathogen. This stage is characterized by a general malaise. Non-specific symptoms like fever, tiredness, and inflammation are common.
- The period of illness is when you will likely notice a serious decline in your dog’s health. The pathogen has continued to multiply and has taken over your dog’s body. Symptoms of illness are at their most intense stage.
- The period of decline comes after treatment. Your dog starts to feel better but may be at risk of developing a secondary infection because of decreased immune function.
- The convalescence stage sees a return to normal health and activity. Some diseases may cause long-term harm to his health (like damage to an internal organ) or can develop into chronic illness (commonly things like joint pain are the result of acute illness).
If you find a tick on your dog, you may choose to keep the tick in a jar of alcohol or a zip-top sandwich bag. If your dog develops a fever or shows any signs of illness, call your vet immediately. He may ask to pass the tick to a pathologist for testing.
Your vet will have a standard course of treatment that likely includes broad-spectrum antibiotics. Doxycycline is a popular choice and treats the three most common tick-borne illnesses (Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Ehrlichiosis, and Lyme disease). Doses are calculated by your dog’s body weight.
The prognosis for most diseases are good if they are caught early. Few dogs experience life-threatening reactions to tick bites.
Doberman pinschers and German shepherds are slightly more likely to develop a bad case of Ehrlichiosis, so their prognosis is often not as good as some other breeds.
Your dog’s yearly physical will probably include a complete blood count panel that screens for all tick-borne illnesses. Ask your veterinarian for more information.
If you live in an area where ticks and tick-borne illnesses are prevalent, it may be a good idea to keep track of your dog’s overall health with a journal.
Note on each day the type and size of a tick found, if any. Keep track of how it was removed and where the body is kept. Make sure to jot down any symptoms of illness your dog may be displaying - it could be linked to a tick and could provide a valuable timeline of disease progression for treatment.
It is easy to let your worries get the best of you if you happen to find a tick on your pet.
Overall your dog has a very small chance of getting sick from a bug bite, and the chances decrease the faster you remove the tick.
Good daily grooming habits, a clean yard with short grass, and properly-used preventative treatment can all help ensure your dog stays healthy and bug-free outside.
Taking your dog out to play should not be stressful, so ask your vet for more information on getting rid of ticks.
Sources:Identifying and treating 3 tick-borne diseases in dogs
Ehrlichiosis in Dogs
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Anaplasmosis in Dogs
Tick-Borne Diseases of Dogs and Cats
Ticks of Dogs