Now that the polar vortex has (hopefully) been banished for the year, you're probably chomping at the bit to get back out to your favorite hiking trail—likely with your canine adventure companion in tow. But fresh research about Lyme disease suggests you should think twice before throwing Fido in the back of your truck.
In Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2014 State of Pet Health Report, researchers found that Lyme disease in dogs has increased 21 percent since 2009. The report, which based its results on medical data from more than 2.3 million dogs, found that in 2013, one in every 130 dogs carried the disease-causing bacteria.
"Because it’s been a long winter, especially in many areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, the natural thing for everyone to do is to go outside and enjoy the wonderful weather," says Dr. Sandi Lefebvre, a veterinary research associate at Banfield. "Although it's fabulous to be outside with your dog, you need to be conscious of the dangers that are lurking out there."
Those dangers vary depending on which state you live in. Take New England, where Lyme disease rates are much higher than in the rest of the country. In New Hampshire—the state with the most reported cases of Lyme disease—one in every 15 dogs examined was infected. Compare that to the Pacific Northwest, where just one in every 1,000 dogs carried the bacteria.
Since 2009, populations of the two species of ticks that carry Lyme disease have exploded. The white-tailed deer populations that ticks feast upon—and that primarily occupy states east of the Rocky Mountains—have also grown since then, says Lefebvre.
"Ticks like to feed off of these deer, so the more deer there are, the more ticks there are, and the higher the chance that those ticks are infected," Lefebvre says. "And the more infected ticks there are, the higher the chance of dogs getting bitten by them."
Climate may also have played a role in the Lyme disease boom. Simply put, ticks like warmer weather. Short, mild winters like the one two years ago translate to longer tick seasons.
"Any mammal, whether dog, raccoon, or cat, that travels through those environments is potential target for hungry ticks," says Banfield’s Regional Medical Director Amy Bowman. "Ticks don't jump, leap, or fly. They merely climb plant life and release onto the potential host. What can you do to break that cycle? You have to prevent ticks from attaching and feeding on your pet."
But before you decide to lock your four-legged friend in the kennel, take a second to reconsider. Just because your dog is carrying the bacteria doesn’t mean he’ll show any of the disease’s symptoms. And while others can have life-threatening kidney failure, there are a few simple precautions you can take to keep your pup healthy.
With that in mind, Bowman provided some tips to keep your pup safe, identify signs of Lyme disease, and treat the ailment.
Medication and Gadgets
You wear sunblock to prevent sunburns, so why not give your dog a similar treatment to deter ticks? Bowman suggests a chemical method, like the popular parasiticide Advantix, or a flea and tick collar. Both are available at most pet stores and animal clinics.
After any outdoor adventure, remember to check your dogs for ticks. "Ticks need to feed on your pet for about 24 hours," says Bowman. "So when you get back from your activity, groom your pet for ticks. That greatly decreases exposure."
Know the Symptoms
The incubation period and symptoms of Lyme disease in canines vary drastically. However, if your dog exhibits lameness, limping, fever, lethargy, joint soreness, or joint inflammation, it might have Lyme disease and you should seek veterinary help as soon as possible.
Don't Ignore Your Vet
"The best thing you can do to know whether or not your dog is positive for the bacteria is to have it tested regularly for exposure to Lyme disease," Bowman says. "That is usually done in conjunction with your pet's annual heartworm test. We often pick up Lyme disease in pets who have never shown symptoms." These tests are simple, requiring only a drop of blood, and will help detect other potentially harmful diseases in your dog.