Now that we are well into tick season, it is time to think again about the crippling, even fatal illness, Lyme disease. The name comes from the geographical area where the disease was first recognized, Lyme, Connecticut, but Lyme knows no geographical limitations. It has been reported in 47 of the 50 states, and is spreading rapidly. Like a number of other difficult diseases, Lyme is carried and transmitted by ticks. It is caused by a spirochete (a type of spiral-shaped bacteria) called Borrelia burgdorferi. It was first described in people, but it can be found in many wild animals, as well as horses, cats, and particularly dogs.
Symptoms begin, in people, with fatigue, headache, and often a rash. These are tough symptoms to detect in a dog, but if your working dog, or even your intensely fun-loving Border Collie seems a little bit "off" you might want to check it out. Dogs often show a fever, loss of appetite, and signs of lameness. If left untreated, Lyme may progress to cardiac, neurologic, and arthritic problems.
Diagnosis of Lyme disease usually includes an antibody test. A positive test, however, simply means that the dog has been exposed to Borrelia burgdorferi at some time, and that his immune system has reacted to it. On the other hand, animals sometimes seem not to show signs of the disease for months or even years after exposure. The earlier the treatment, the better, so if your dog tests positive but has no symptoms, your vet may decide to treat with antibiotics anyway.
Lyme disease is easily and effectively treated--if recognized early enough--with a course of antibiotics. The dog may seem to recover dramatically within the first couple of days, but as with all antibiotic treatment, it is important to continue with the medication for the entire prescribed period.
Prevention of Lyme disease involves protection from ticks. If it is impossible to avoid ticks, as it is for many of us, especially in the outdoor lives so many of our Border Collies live, then some kind of repellent can be helpful. Your vet is the best source of advice on which repellents are both safe and effective. Ticks are hard to kill, and not every flea collar will do the job. Ticks, by the way, aren't insects like fleas; they are more closely related to spiders (notice, they have eight legs, not six!), and are much more resistant to pesticides and repellants.
At the very least, you should groom your dog thoroughly every day, and examine for ticks. Ticks don't bite and run like mosquitoes, or even fleas; they bite and hang on with a determined "grip." They hold on and suck blood, filling themselves until they look nothing at all like the picture but like a small gray grape attached to your dog's--or your own--skin. They should be removed with tweezers, crushed, or dropped in a bottle of alcohol or soapy water. Don't crush ticks between your fingers, or you may become infected yourself. And don't flush them down the toilet; they are terrific swimmers.
At one time, only the tiny Deer Tick was believed to carry Lyme, but now we know that it can also be transmitted by both the American Dog Tick and the Brown Dog Tick. If you have ticks, don't waste your time trying to identify which ticks they are!
The good news is that there is now an anti-Lyme vaccine for dogs. It is not 100% effective, but if your dog lives in tick country, some protection is better than none. Just remember that if your dog shows the symptoms, he could be infected--even if he has had the shot. The shot will also make the dog test positive for Lyme in the antibody test, so you will no longer be able to diagnose Lyme from that test.
Note: information on Lyme disease was supplied by the Germantown Veterinary Clinic, Germantown, MD