Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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There's No Time for Lyme

Pet Column for the week of April 13, 2009

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Services - Public Health

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

In 1975 a surprising number of young children started to develop what physicians thought was rheumatoid arthritis. Some showed neurological signs and many had a circular red rash on their body. Most of the outbreak was noticed in just a few towns in Connecticut, one of which was named Old Lyme, the source of the name for the mysterious disease that was later found to be transmitted by ticks.

Lyme disease today is well known by physicians and veterinarians alike. It can infect both man and his best friend. While the initial sign in humans is erythema migrans, or a bulls eye rash at the site where a tick attached itself, dog owners would notice something different. "The most common clinical sign is a sudden, yet recurring, lameness that may shift from leg to leg," says Dr. Allan Paul, a veterinary parasitologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary medicine.

While the disease was at first thought to be located only in the northeast part of the country, the tick that carries the bacteria causing the disease, the deer tick, has been found in several parts of the United States. For example, Lyme disease has been found in the suburbs of Chicago and is documented to be moving south. Currently, it is most prominent in the northeast, with a high-risk pocket in western Wisconsin.

A simple blood test can usually diagnose Lyme disease in dogs. If treated soon enough, antibiotics can often provide an easy cure. However, "if left untreated it can cause kidney disease, arthritis, and myocarditis," notes Dr. Paul. Thus, if you're not sure if your pooch is limping because it's getting old or because a tick bit it, don't hesitate to see your veterinarian.

Today, there are vaccines for Lyme disease available. But depending on where you live and other individual circumstances it is best to speak with your local veterinarian regarding vaccinating your dog.

Without getting into the medical details involving an infection of the bacteria causing the disease, there is an ongoing debate amongst researchers regarding whether or not a dog can be re-infected with Lyme disease after it has already been treated. Current research is investigating this problem since dogs living in endemic areas are more likely to be exposed on repeat occasions.

In addition to topical treatments from your veterinarian that can kill ticks before they have a chance to spread the bacteria, "checking your pet for ticks and promptly removing them is another way to prevent the disease," says Dr. Paul. That is because the little critters must be attached for at least 24 hours before they can transmit the ailment.

Although Lyme disease is a problem in humans, it is important to note that you cannot pick up the illness from your dog. Only ticks can transmit it to a host. The deer tick likes to live on--you guessed it--deer, and when your pet walks through an area where deer may have been, there is a chance that a deer tick has fallen off and will attach to your pet. While they may cause a lot of damage, young deer ticks are only about the size of a pen point, so it is important to look carefully for those little guys.

If you would like more information on Lyme disease contact your local veterinarian.