Disease-carrying ticks are on the rise in Maine, and that’s bad news for pet owners.
Just like their humans, pets that spend any time outdoors are vulnerable to tick-borne diseases. Lyme, anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis have been on the rise among pets, with cases of one disease doubling over the last year.
Ticks have become a common enemy for Maine humans and animals alike. In recent years, the disease-carrying arachnids have spread throughout the state and are now present year round. People who spend time outside are already reporting high tick activity this spring. And pet owners need to take the same precautions they do for themselves when it comes to their four-legged companions.
One of the state’s top veterinarians said the rise in tick-borne diseases in dogs could be due to more than the growing prevalence of ticks.
“The screen for anaplasmosis has added extra [bacteria] species so there are now more positive results,” Kate Domenico, president of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, said. “It does not mean there are more cases, it’s probably because the tests are more sensitive.”
More owners are also having their dogs screened for tick-borne diseases, which could also be skewing the numbers.
Lyme disease has never been seen outside a laboratory in cats and it’s very rare for felines to contract anaplasmosis.
So far this year 1 out of 8 eight dogs screened for Lyme disease in Maine has tested positive, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council. Those numbers have been holding steady for the last 10 years.
“People are more vigilant about Lyme disease in Maine,” Domenico said. “Unless you just arrived here yesterday, you know it’s endemic here.”
Dogs can be vaccinated against Lyme disease, while there are no vaccines for anaplasmosis or ehrlichiosis. Anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis cases in dogs have more than doubled over the last 10 years here, according to the parasite council data.
Lyme disease and anaplasmosis are carried by deer ticks, while ehrlichiosis is carried by the lone star tick. Both are present in Maine.
Most dogs exposed to Lyme will not become sick. For those that do become sick, symptoms including fever, lethargy, decreased appetite and lameness don’t often occur until several months after a tick bite.
Unlike humans, dogs do not show the distinctive bullseye rash at the site of a deer tick bite. When treated with antibiotics, dogs have an excellent chance at recovery. However, a rare complication associated with Lyme disease can cause kidney damage and is ultimately fatal.
Many dogs that test positive for anaplasmosis also never become ill or require treatment. Dogs that do become ill are treated with the antibiotic doxycycline and there is a good prognosis for recovery. Symptoms include fever, decreased appetite and lethargy, and when treated there is an excellent chance of recovery.
Left untreated, ehrlichiosis can be fatal in dogs. When caught in time and treated with antibiotics, there is a good chance of recovery, though repeated antibiotic treatments may be needed.
Symptoms of ehrlichiosis include loss of appetite, lethargy and unusual bruising or bleeding.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever, carried by the American dog tick, is also now in Maine and dogs are at risk. Typically, a dog that has become infected may have a poor appetite, muscle or joint pain, fever, coughing, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and swelling of the face or legs.
Immediate treatment with antibiotics will often cure the dog, but left untreated it can be fatal.
In all cases, prevention is the key to keeping your dog safe from tick-borne diseases, according to Domenico.
The first line of defense is treating your pet with a prescription antiparasitic formulated for tick prevention. These are available in both edible and topical forms and Domenico said both are effective.
Those medications can be supplemented with anti-tick collars made by Seresto. These are available in most pet supply stores and do not require a veterinarian’s prescription. It’s also the only over-the-counter form of prevention Demenico recommends.
“A lot of these topical medications like Frontline Plus have been around for 30 or more years,” she said. “Ticks and fleas have built up resistance to them.”
Given the numbers of ticks now in Maine, Domenico said it is crucial to inspect pets for ticks if they have spent any time at all outside, especially in grassy or brushy areas.
The sooner a tick is removed, the less chance it has to transmit a disease to the animal.
“One of the problems right now is that the tick nymphs are out,” Domenico said. “They are quite tiny so you really have to look hard.”
If your pet is displaying any symptoms associated with a tick-borne disease, she said the faster you can get them to a veterinarian, the better the chances for recovery.
“Be sure to tell your vet your dog or cat has been in areas where ticks are,” she said. “They can run the proper screening tests and start treatment right away if needed. Tick diseases in your dog or cat do not have to be death sentences.”