Lyme Disease: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Pet

By June 7, 2019 October 24th, 2019 Preventative Medicine

Lyme disease is becoming a hot topic for both people and their pets. But what exactly is it and what are the risks for pets?

Lyme disease is spread by ticks carrying a particular type of bacteria. If a tick carrying this infection bites a host (dog, cat or human), it can transmit the bacteria over many hours, potentially infecting the host with Lyme disease.

So, what are the risks?

First of all, not all ticks can transmit Lyme disease. Currently the only tick in Alberta transmitting Lyme disease is Ixodes scapularis (otherwise known as the “black-legged tick” or “deer tick”).

There is currently a free government surveillance program monitoring tick species and the presence of Lyme disease in Alberta. In 2017, 1,942 ticks were submitted from 1,356 companion animals (mainly from dogs, with a small number from horses, cats, rabbits, cattle etc). Of the 1,942 ticks submitted, only 288 of those ticks were Ixodes scapularis (capable of transmitting Lyme disease). This is about 15% of the total number of ticks found.

Of those 288 Ixodes ticks, only 50 of them were actually carrying Lyme disease (about 17% of these ticks).

It’s also important to realize that of the 1,356 animals that had ticks, 857 of these animals (69%) had no travel history outside Alberta. The remaining 499 animals either had traveled outside of Alberta or had an unknown travel history.

Another factor for transmission is how long the tick has been attached to its host; the longer it is attached, the more likely Lyme disease (assuming it is an Ixodes tick that is carrying Lyme disease) has been transmitted.

How long is necessary for the tick to transmit Lyme disease?

  • > 48 hours: significant risk of transmission
  • 24-48 hours: questionable risk; possible transmission, although not as likely
  • < 24 hours: negligible/low risk

Lyme disease in dogs and cats:

Dogs and cats are relatively resistant to Lyme disease in comparison to people (meaning that if they have exposure to Lyme disease, they may or may not show any clinical problems). For example, only 5% of dogs exposed to Lyme disease will actually get sick. For cats, so far there have been no reports of naturally-occurring Lyme disease (although they can be experimentally infected). If pets do get sick, possible clinical signs are: joint pain/swelling, limping, decreased appetite, lethargy/low energy, fever, possible weight loss.

If you are concerned your pet may have been exposed to Lyme disease, there is a blood test available to test for antibody levels (indicating exposure to Lyme disease). This does take ~3-5 weeks after Lyme exposure to become positive.

If Lyme disease is caught early, it is easily treatable with antibiotics. Please discuss further concerns with your veterinarian.

So, what does this all mean?

Do we have Lyme disease in Alberta – YES

Who is at risk?

Any animal in contact with ticks (especially those in wooded or tall grass areas, dog parks, hiking, camping etc).

How likely is Lyme transmission in Alberta?

The risk of catching Lyme disease is still considered low. Currently only ~15% of the ticks being found are capable of carrying Lyme disease, and only ~17% of those ticks actually have Lyme disease.

Finally, even if pets have been infected with Lyme disease their risk of getting sick is quite low (~5% in dogs, lower risk in cats).

So, what can we do about Lyme disease and ticks?

Even though the risk is low, there are a number of options being recommended to help keep pets safe.

1) Regularly tick check

a. At a minimum, animals going outside (especially to dog parks, wooded or tall grass areas etc) should be checked daily for ticks. It is also important to note that some pet owners have found ticks in their own yards (especially if next to an off-leash park, frequent habitat for wildlife such as an acreage, etc).

b. Removing ticks found within 1 day of attachment will greatly reduce your pet’s chance of Lyme disease.

c.  Ticks can attach ANYWHERE on your pet; therefore, it is important to check every part of your pet’s body when tick-checking. This includes inside the mouth, inside the ears, between the toes, around the genitals, etc. For furry animals, running your hands along all surfaces of their body (and further examining any “lumps” felt) will be more effective than just visually looking.

d. If a tick is found, it should be removed ASAP. This can be done at any veterinary clinic, or by a pet’s owner (if comfortable with tick removal; ticks must be entirely removed to prevent further issues).

e. All ticks should be submitted to the government to identify the tick species and test it for Lyme disease. This can be done through any veterinary clinic and is a free service.

2) Tick Prevention

a. For animals with higher risk (camping, hiking, off-leash parks, travel, etc) or if owners are concerned about not finding ticks (with tick checking), there are a variety of tick prevention medications available.

b. These include both chewable tablets as well as topical “spot-on” products. Many are available through your veterinarian, although some are OTC (over-the-counter products from pet stores; no prescription necessary). If the product is not obtained through your veterinarian, you will need to ensure it is effective against Ixodes (black-legged or deer ticks) ticks. You will also need to make sure it is safe for your particular type of pet (for example, cats need cat-specific products as many dog products are TOXIC to them).

c. These products are usually applied monthly (some last for 3 months) and need to be given during the tick season (spring to fall). Ticks typically start becoming active at 4 C or above; once we have a consistent thaw (~March – early April) they will start looking for hosts and remain active until our weather drops to a freeze (usually ~mid-late September)

3) Lyme disease vaccine

a. Finally, there is also a Lyme vaccine available for high risk dogs. At this time, we are typically recommending the vaccine for dogs that are traveling to high-risk areas of Lyme disease (for example, certain areas of BC, Ontario, etc). At this time, since the risk of Lyme disease is currently still low within Alberta, we are not routinely recommending this vaccine for dogs staying within the province. However, this vaccine is available for pet owners with extra concerns.

b. This vaccine needs to have 2 boosters 2-4 weeks apart, and is then given once yearly. It can be given to dogs 12 weeks or older. The vaccine is not 100% protective against Lyme disease, but can aid protection in dogs in high-risk areas.

c. Another factor to consider is that this vaccine does have a higher risk of vaccine reactions than other vaccinations. This could include: facial swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting, hives, itchiness, red skin, rash, etc. The risk of Lyme disease exposure should always be weighed against the risk of vaccination; these factors can be further discussed with your veterinarian.