Do Deer Ticks Feed on Dogs?

by Rebecca Bragg
    Deer ticks infect dogs by transmitting disease-causing organisms in their saliva.

    Deer ticks infect dogs by transmitting disease-causing organisms in their saliva.

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    Deer ticks love dogs. In fact, the nasty little beasts will hop onto warm canine bodies, find a hiding place and clamp down every chance they get. The disease they transmit is treatable, but the best way you can keep your pooch safe is make sure ticks never get a chance to put down roots in his fur.

    Ticks are eight-legged insects, related to spiders, that attach themselves to host vertebrates, including dogs, and drink their blood. In the U.S., two types of deer tick transmit potentially serious Lyme disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vector for Lyme disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central states is the black-legged tick; on the Pacific coast, the western black-legged tick is the culprit. Inside the bodies of these bugs are corkscrew-shaped bacteria called spirochetes, specifically Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme disease infectious agent. Late spring and early fall are the riskiest times, but a tick must feed on your dog's blood for 24 to 48 hours before it can transmit the disease through its salivary glands.

    The sudden onset of arthritic symptoms can be a sign of Lyme disease, so if your dog starts limping, feel the joints that are causing him trouble. If they're hot, swollen and tender, off you go to the vet. Other signs of Lyme disease include lethargy and weight loss. Kidney failure, heart block and behavioral changes such as aggression and seizures have also been reported, but rarely. Cornell University's Baker Institute for Animal Health suggests that, breed-wise, some dogs might be more susceptible than others but too little is known to say for sure. Symptoms generally show up two to five months after a dog has been exposed to an infected tick.

    Lyme disease in dogs has been reported in every state, including Hawaii, but is most common in the northeastern, upper midwestern and west coast states. Not all dogs infected with B. burgdorferi develop symptoms of Lyme disease -- on the contrary, blood tests performed on dogs living in regions with the highest concentrations of infected deer ticks suggest only about 5 percent proceed to clinical signs of the disease. To find out how serious the problem is in your area, check the Companion Animal Parasite Council website, which offers an interactive "parasite prevalence" map showing geographical low, moderate and high areas by state and a breakdown of confirmed canine Lyme disease cases by county.

    The great news about this debilitating disease is that dogs who contract it typically respond very well to antibiotic treatment. Sometimes, they recover spontaneously without treatment, says the Baker Institute. If your dog does need treatment, though, you'll likely see relief of symptoms within a few days. But because B. burgdorferi is a very tenacious microbe, antibiotics must be administered for three to four weeks in order to clear it out of your dog's system. Vets may also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids to ease joint pain.

    According to the Baker Institute, preventing ticks from making themselves at home on your dog is a better strategy than vaccination. During tick season, inspect your dog daily and kill any bugs you find. Use tick-repelling products, such as shampoos, sprays and collars. Though "several million doses" of the only Lyme disease vaccine for dogs licensed for use in the U.S. have been sold, the Baker Institute isn't convinced of its efficacy. For one thing, it won't protect dogs with B. burgdorferi already in their blood. For another, some dogs actually develop Lyme disease from the vaccine. Discuss the matter with your vet, but "we cannot recommend vaccination ... until questions are resolved about clinical Lyme disease developing in [vaccinated] dogs," says the Baker Institute.

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    About the Author

    Rebecca Bragg has been a writer since 1979. From 1988 to 2000, she was a reporter for Canada's largest newspaper, the "Toronto Star," specializing in travel. She holds a Master of Arts in English literature and creative writing and has lived in India and Nepal, volunteering in animal rescue organizations in both countries.

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