Worst Summer for Lyme Disease? An Infectious Disease Expert Separates Fact From Fiction

Tick in a bottle
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It’s been all over the news lately: studies warning that this could be the worst summer yet for Lyme disease in the northeastern U.S.

Should you be concerned for your pet? Vetstreet talked to Sam R. Telford III, a professor of infectious diseases at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, to find out.

Q. Why are experts saying that this could be a really bad summer when it comes to ticks and Lyme disease?

A. Sam Telford: "Some researchers have argued that it’s due to an acorn effect — two years ago, there was a surplus of acorns, so last year, there were lots of rodents to feed on them, and many of the deer ticks [the main type of tick that carries Lyme disease] were able to feed on the rodents. But there were no acorns last year, which means that, this year, the rodents are scarce, and therefore ticks are looking for other things to feed on. In addition, the warm winter and early spring led to speculation that ticks would survive better and begin feeding earlier.

"But I think that some of the media coverage is a result of hype, and these claims aren’t necessarily true. For instance, I’m on Nantucket right now, and mice aren’t driven by acorns here. I’ve seen no major increase of ticks on the island. Also, the rain that dominated the Northeast this spring kept a lot of people and their pets inside, so even if the ticks started feeding earlier, I wouldn’t expect there to be a net increase in tick bites."

Q. So just how concerned should pet owners be about Lyme disease affecting their dogs and cats?

A. "Dogs are exposed to ticks a lot more heavily than people. So virtually all dogs in sites where there are deer ticks have been infected. However, the relationship between infection and disease in dogs is poorly understood. Most dogs are asymptomatic. Some get lameness, will just not be 'right' (off their food, depressed, won't get up), and will have a fever. It may also be breed specific. More studies are needed to find out how and why dogs are affected. The best thing to do is talk with your vet, especially if you notice strange symptoms in your dog. Lyme disease does not appear to be a problem for cats."

Q. What should owners do to help protect their dogs from Lyme disease?

A. "There’s no magic bullet, but there are good flea and tick preventives out there. An integrated multiple approach is best. Use a tick collar, use a topical application — and use it frequently in tick season. You may also want to talk to your vet about using it more often than directed if you have a big or fat dog. And do a tick check after being out in a woodsy site."

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