Our extremely wet spring has led to an unusually high number of pet owners having troubles with ticks. May through August are common times of the year to find ticks, but we have had more people reporting to us in our practice that they are seeing ticks in areas they have not before.
Aside from being generally creepy, ticks can be a source of disease transmission to dogs and cats. Some of these diseases can also affect people, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). The species of tick that carries Lyme disease, commonly called the deer tick or black-legged tick, previously was not typically found in our area, but the Ohio Department of Health reports that submissions of that species of tick have increased in the last couple of years.
The tick we most often see on pets is the American dog tick, which also is the species that can spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever. There is one suspected, but not confirmed, animal case of RMSF in Lucas County this spring, but there have been no human cases in 2010 or 2011. Symptoms in dogs are a result of a bacteria carried by the tick that infects small blood cells called platelets that are essential in normal blood clotting. The destruction of platelets leads to spontaneous small episodes of bleeding called petechiae. Fever and neurologic symptoms may also be present. There is a characteristic rash seen in people at approximately 12 days post bite, but this is rarely found in dogs.
The most common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are fever and joint pain. The "bull's-eye" rash at the bite that is a hallmark of the disease in people is rarely found in dogs. Kidney disease and neurologic symptoms may be associated with a chronic long-term infection. The joint pain may affect more than one leg and it may look like your dog is tip-toeing or walking on eggshells. If untreated, the joints can erode and a debilitating arthritis will develop.
A screening blood test exists for the most common tick-borne diseases, and rising antibody levels over time are a definitive diagnosis. If caught early, most tick-related diseases respond quickly to a common antibiotic. If you have any concerns that your dog may have been infected, do not delay seeking treatment from your veterinarian, because early detection is essential to avoid long-term damage and insure a speedy recovery.
Preventing ticks and finding them before they can attach is the best method to avoid these problems. Keep your dog out of unmowed areas and brush, since this is prime tick habitat. After being outdoors carefully examine your dog for ticks that may have hitched a ride. Ears, feet, and the belly are places where ticks like to congregate.
A comb is also a great way to catch them before attaching. If you find a tick that is attached, use a pair of tweezers to grasp the head of the tick near the skin and gently tug until it releases; then drop it into rubbing alcohol to kill it.
Do not ever burn a tick on your pet. It can cause the tick to disgorge into your pet, increasing the possibility of disease transmission and will almost certainly lead to a painful burn for your dog. Your veterinarian can recommend a good topical preventive as well; never use topical flea and tick products for dogs on cats.
For more information on how to protect yourself and your pets from ticks and a good identification guide of the various species of ticks, go to www.odh.ohio.gov/features/odhfeatures/tickbornediseases.aspx.
Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 North Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.