Ticks: Diseases they Cause are Worse than their Bite

Ticks: Diseases they Cause are Worse than their Bite
By Dr. Ed Mapes
Stonebridge Animal Hospital

As if being bitten by ticks is not bad enough, the hidden diseases caused by their bite can actually be much worse. Ticks can harbor several different organisms called the Rickettsias that cause disease when passed along when a tick bites its victim. These organisms are responsible for many illnesses in humans, plants, and animals; some with familiar names such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Others are less well-known but equally as troublesome – Anaplasmosis, Ehrlichiosis, and Bartonellosis to name a few.

Figure 1:  Rhipacephalus sanguineous

Figure 1: Rhipacephalus sanguineous

Figure 1 Rhipacephalus sanguineous, the Brown Dog Tick, before being engorged with blood of its host. This tick is famous for transmitting ehrlichiosis and babesiosis to its host.
Tick-borne diseases are prevalent in the Southern United States because tick populations have spread and thrived here from other regions. Several ticks now populate this area, making transmission to our pets more likely.

Ticks must attach to the host animal and begin taking a blood meal for transmission of the organisms to occur. This can take anywhere from about 5 to 24 hours to occur – removing ticks before attachment can prevent disease from occurring. Once transmission is complete, the organisms takes varying routes to produce disease after entering a host animal.

The symptoms of these disorders are often very subtle, especially in their earliest phases, making diagnosis difficult at times. Veterinarians – and pet owners too – must have what we call a high “index of suspicion” for the diseases to make detection more feasible. Index of suspicion is the term used to describe an awareness of symptoms that leads to a notion that a set of diseases may be at fault. It allows us to test for these diseases earlier, when treatment is more effective.

Clinical signs vary according to the organism involved, and most of the signs can easily be attributable to other illnesses. This is when our index of suspicion comes into play. Some of the more common symptoms seen with tick borne diseases include:

  • Fever
  • Anemia
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Decreased platelet counts
  • Joint pain
  • Lymph node enlargement
  • Loss of Appetite

When patients present with any combination of these and other symptoms, the radar of Veterinarians that took smart pills will hopefully include tick-borne diseases in the list of possible causes. This should prompt blood testing to confirm our suspicions.

Treatment aims at eliminating the organisms and alleviating the diseases that arise. Antibiotics are quite effective in eradication, although some of the diseases (Lyme and Ehrlichiosis for example) can re-occur. Doxycycline, azithromycin, and imidocarb are medications that are usually effective when given for four to six weeks.

Dogs can suffer serious, even life threatening illness from a single tick bite. Ehrlichiosis and Babesiosis can cause severe anemia and bleeding disorders, and Lyme disease results in chronic or intermittent joint pain that causes lameness. Prevention or early treatment is the best course of action so that chronic exposure cannot cause more serious disease.

Pets should be inspected closely for the presence of ticks after spending time in wooded areas or where tall underbrush and grasses can harbor ticks. Combing through the hair coat is a good precaution. Beware some favorite hiding places: ticks love to crawl into the ear canals, where they can be hard to find.

Any animal that roams the back forty should have the flea/tick remover of your choice on board; but know that these are less effective against ticks than they are fleas. If ticks have not embedded their mouthparts into the skin, just remove them manually. Ticks that are actively taking a blood meal are more important since they’re possibly transmitting disease.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2 compare the hungry tick on the right to its well-fed (engorged) counterpart that has bitten its host and may have transmitted disease.

Carefully remove the entire tick – mouth parts included – without delay. The mouthparts of a tick are barbed and may remain embedded and lead to infection at the bite site if not removed promptly. Place a drop of alcohol on them to loosen the grip and then carefully remove the beast. Grip the head as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and then pull it straight out gently, but firmly. Do not twist or jerk the tick. Do not use bare hands because tick secretions may carry disease.

Take the pet to the veterinary hospital for examination, where medications will be prescribed to remove organisms that may have been transmitted. Any animal showing some of the signs mentioned should absolutely be examined for the possibility of a tick-borne disease so that treatment is not delayed.

It is now possible to have dogs examined for several tick-borne diseases during the yearly heartworm blood test. This allows us to discover infections early and prevent needless suffering in our best friends. Just ask your veterinarian to do the Snap 4Dx instead of the regular heartworm test. It will identify heartworm disease, but also the important ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease, and anaplasmosis at the same time.

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