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The Truth About Lyme Disease

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 7 Jul 2010 | comments*Discuss
Ticks Lyme Disease Parasites Diseases

Traditionally, Lyme disease has been considered to be a relatively uncommon disease in the UK. However, the recent hotter summers have seen an increase in the prevalence of Lyme Disease and it is certainly worth considering the risks to you and your pet, particularly if you exercise or live in the countryside.

Lyme Disease Transmission

Many people think that Lyme Disease is caused by ticks – in fact, it is cause by the Borrelia bacteria which are carried by certain tick species called Ixodes ticks. These ticks are typically found in woodland or grassland and usually feed on sheep, deer, horses and rodents. However, they will also attach themselves to dogs and cats – and even humans – if the opportunity presents itself. Lyme Disease in the United States is considered a serious threat to pets and thus given high coverage in pet magazines and veterinary journals (the disease is named after a place in Connecticut, USA where it was first documented).

In the UK, it is less well-known and even sometimes overlooked by vets and doctors. The risk of Lyme Disease infection is greatest in the time period from April to October as that is when the ticks are most active. However, studies show that ticks can be active at all times of the year in certain areas. Ticks will feed until they are engorged when they will drop off and wait again in the vegetation until they need to feed again and reattach themselves to a new host.

Preventing Infection

Luckily, infection of Lyme Disease can be prevented with a few cautionary measures. First, be aware of areas which harbour ticks – usually places with a high density of dead vegetation or leaf litter or where host animals such as deer frequently pass. The UK actually has many areas which are potential tick habitats. If possible avoid exercising your dog (and yourself) in heavily infested areas. If you must walk through risky areas, follow these precautions:

  • For humans, the best defence is clothing so cover up as much as possible, tuck trousers into socks and wear light-coloured clothes to easily spot the ticks.
  • For pets, inspect them regularly – every few hours and at the end of the day’s activity. This is particularly important if your pet has long fur which means ticks may not be readily visible.
  • Using insect repellent on clothes and repellent collars on pets may help.
  • Don’t allow your dog to spend too much time in dense vegetation.
  • If you see a tick on your pet, remove it as soon as possible. (Ask your vet for the proper removal method as incorrect methods can leave parts of the tick embedded in your pet’s skin which can then cause infection.)
  • Watch your pet for symptoms, such as lesions on their skin, lameness or stiffness, lethargy, swollen lumph nodes and fever. Be aware though that symptoms sometimes don’t develop until months after the initial infection.

Don’t Panic!

While Lyme Disease can be serious and quick removal of the tick is important, there is no need to panic in the early stages. Ticks will often crawl around before biting and latching on. Furthermore, not every tick carries Lyme Disease and even those that do may not always infect you or your pet. In fact, an infected tick will usually have to be feeding for several hours (usually until it is fully engorged with blood) before it will pass on the bacteria.

Lyme Disease in Dogs

Dogs that have been infected with Lyme Disease often won’t exhibit any symptoms for a long time – sometimes not until months after the initial infection. However, if there is any suspicion that your dog might have Lyme Disease, take it to your veterinarian for a full examination immediately. Aside from the basic symptoms such as swelling or lameless in the joints, fever and lethargy, in extreme cases, Lyme Disease can cause facial paralysis, cardiac disease and kidney disease which can lead to urinary incontinence, kidney failure and death. The good news is that providing it is caught early, treatment with antibiotics is usually very successful.

Lyme Disease in Cats

Cats can suffer similar symptoms such as lethargy, joint stiffness or lameness, fever, loss of appetite and even sudden collapse – however, they can also show no symptoms at all! Like dogs, they respond well to treatment with antibiotics if given early. While keeping cats permanently indoors is a surefire way of avoiding Lyme Disease, this is not always possible or desirable. Therefore, if you and your cat live in a tick-infested area, make sure you check your cat regularly for ticks. You may even want to consider a tick-collar, although make sure it is one that is suitable for cats as those made for dogs can be toxic to cats. Overall, cats seem to be more resistant to the disease than dogs and humans – however, its danger lies in the fact that it is often overlooked until it has reached the advanced stages.

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