Where there are ticks, there's bound to be tick disease. According to veterinary parasitologist Dr. Michael Dryden, the tick population in America has exploded in recent years. Curiously, dogs enjoy more benefits than people when it comes to identifying tick disease, as well as protection to prevent disease transmission in the first place. For people, there's no accurate test to determine tick-borne disease. For dogs, however, an inexpensive blood test can identify three tick diseases (Lyme, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis), plus heartworm disease.
"Tick disease is sometimes there without a pet showing clinical signs," says Dryden. "It's important to know if a dog's been exposed. Very often, the general signs (of tick disease) can show up later, and they're often mistaken for other conditions."
For example, one symptom of Lyme disease may be lameness. It's not unusual for dogs, especially older individuals, to simply be given pain relief for what's assumed to be arthritis.
For people, there are steps to avoid ticks, but in dogs there are many choices for tick protection. "Protection is key," says Dryden, University Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Parasitology in the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology at Kansas State University, Manhattan. Unfortunately, not all products work well.
"Sometimes consumers make impulsive purchases which may not be the most informed choices," says Dryden. "Not all over-the-counter products are truly all that protective. It's important that the product you choose is appropriate for the lifestyle of your pets, as well as where you live. By choosing the wrong product, not only may people waste money, but the pet may then be at increased risk for potential tick disease, which can debilitate the pet and cost money to treat. This is why veterinary advice on what product to purchase is so important."
Lyme disease is a particular risk for people. Using death records collected from 45 states, researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that between 1999 and 2003, there were 114 records listing Lyme disease as a cause of death. Lyme may also trigger a lifetime of chronic, debilitating illness, and weaken the immune system, allowing other diseases to take hold. So, while the official cause of death may not be listed as Lyme disease - truly it was Lyme that allows for perhaps thousands of untimely deaths to occur annually in people in the U.S.
In dogs, Lyme rarely causes death, but like all tick-borne diseases it's likely under-diagnosed, and may cause a lifetime of chronic problems.
Making matters worse for both people and dogs, ticks sometimes inflict a cocktail of nasty pathogens, including Lyme disease, all at once.
At least for Lyme disease, dogs have still another layer of protection not yet unavailable for humans. "The Lyme vaccines for dogs are both safe and effective, and should strongly be considered if you live where Lyme disease occurs," Dryden advises.
Is there truly more tick-related disease today than, say, a decade ago, or have veterinarians simply become better at discovery and diagnosis? "Now, there's a good question," says Dryden. "There's no doubt that the new testing for tick disease is helpful. But ticks are flourishing."
So, why are there so many? "Look at this year's weather," says Dryden. "Throughout most of the nation, it was wet. Much of the country experienced record rain. Now, it's warming up, and all after a relatively mild winter. We'll see ticks from about now to well into the fall and even into early winter."
Weather isn't the only factor. Wildlife numbers are rising. Animals like deer and fox carry ticks from more wooded places right into our backyards, even in many urban areas.
Learn more about tick protection here.
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services
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