With the warmer weather comes the resurgence of the tick and the flea. While bothersome and annoying, they are more than just a nuisance; these insects can transmit disease to our pets. And while no form of prevention is foolproof, there are a few steps we can take to keep our pets as flea and tick free as possible year round.
Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease we hear about in New England. It is a bacteria transmitted directly from the deer tick to your dog. Lyme disease has not been demonstrated to affect cats. In our practice, I would estimate that at least 50% of our patients test positive for Lyme disease during there lifetime and within this group about 5% show signs of illness. Classic signs of Lyme disease in dogs include fever, lethargy, and swelling within the joints causing lameness; however, more severe forms of infection can affect kidneys.
The current recommendations for monitoring and treatment of Lyme disease start with routine screening. This test is part of the heartworm test that is recommended every year. This test simply indicates exposure as it tests for antibodies against Lyme disease. If your pet tests positive for the first time, we then discuss an additional blood test known as the Lyme C6 antibody test. This test actually measures the level of antibodies your dog has produced in response to the infection. If high enough, the decision is made to treat with a 4-week course of the antibiotic doxycycline. The C6 test is then repeated in 6 months and a 50% reduction in antibody levels constitutes a successful treatment.
While the recognition and treatment of Lyme disease is important, prevention should not be overlooked. There are many products available that claim flea and tick control; however, some are safer and more effective than others. The two products that we most commonly recommend for dogs are Frontline and K9 Advantix. Both products are to be applied once monthly. The main difference between the two products is that K9 Advantix has a repellant property that I find does a better job at keeping ticks off completely. Even using these products monthly as directed, you may still see ticks on your dog. However, the goal is that these products kill the tick before the tick has enough time to transmit any disease. No product is 100% effective but I feel very confident in recommending these products. While there has been a lot of press lately on the use of spot-on flea and tick control products, neither Frontline nor Advantix has seen any increase in the incidence of adverse effects. When used properly and as recommended, they are safe and help protect your pet.
It is very important that the topical spot-on treatments be used appropriately to provide the best protection. The product should not be applied within 24 hours of bathing or swimming. Also, the liquid should be applied directly to the skin in multiple spots along the spine from the neck to the hips. If you start seeing more ticks by the third week after application, you may repeat treatment every 3 weeks during the peak months.
If you do find a tick on your dog that is already attached, the best way to remove it is with a tissue or a pair of tweezers. Grab right at the point of attachment to the skin and twist. If the attachment site appears irritated, cleanse with warm water and apply a triple antibiotic ointment (such as Neosporin) twice daily. Your dog cannot pass Lyme disease to you or your family.
There is also a vaccine available against Lyme disease. Due to our geographic burden of ticks, this vaccine is recommended for all dogs except those that have demonstrated prior vaccine reactions or other medical conditions as discussed with your veterinarian. Dogs do not build natural immunity and are still susceptible even after previous infections; therefore, the vaccine is recommended even if your dog has tested positive in the past. Unfortunately, the vaccine does not guarantee immunity; however it is another step in protecting your dog against Lyme disease.
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is by keeping the ticks off. Always be sure to check your dog thoroughly after being outdoors and be consistent about the use of a recommended monthly topical product. If your dog is not already vaccinated against Lyme disease be sure to discuss it at your next visit. We recommend boostering the vaccine in early spring to be sure that the protection peaks with the influx of ticks as the winter weather fades.