Tick in a bottle

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."

Q. If you spot a tick on your pet, what should you do?

A. "Pull it off and discard it (put it in tape or flush it). Then wash your hands immediately — some infections may be transmitted by contamination with a busted tick or tick feces. As with people, a tick bite in and of itself is no cause for hysteria. It takes 24 to 48 hours for a feeding tick to transmit infectious pathogens. So a tick that has only been attached for a few hours is not likely to transmit anything. 

"Even if a tick has been feeding a long time, there’s a chance it was negative for Lyme disease. Infection rates vary from 10 to 70 percent, depending on the time of year and the site. During fall and winter, the adult deer tick has anywhere from a 35 to a 70 percent infection rate with Lyme, but in the summer, it’s more like 15 to 30 percent."

Q. If your animal does contract Lyme disease, what are the steps that a vet will take to combat it?

A. "Lyme disease is not fatal to dogs and most of the time, a defined prescription — usually three to four weeks — of oral antibiotics is sufficient to treat it. There are exceptions: Just as with the common cold, some of us don't feel a thing, some of us are sick for a couple days, some of us are so sick that we can't get out of bed. Regardless, a good vet will prescribe the correct course of treatment for each animal."