Ticks Part Two: Tick-borne Disease For The Pet Owner

My goodness it’s been awhile! If you’re like me, you haven’t had much time to sit down and read about interesting things like ticks over the last few months. Spring decided to SPRING and it’s been day after day, weekend after weekend of yard work and more yard work. I’ve been told it will all be worth it come summertime proper, when we’ll enjoy lazy days with lemonades in hand, kicking back to admire all of the hard labor.  In the meantime, I have been thinking about ticks, while I’ve been out trimming and mulching and having major contact with nature. Why, you ask, would I be thinking about those nasty little arthropods when I could be focused on other things. Well, I’lll tell ya’… My canine kids are always with me, usually offering to dig a hole where I really don’t need one, or carry off a spade just when I need it. They also spend a good bit of time simply sunbathing and sleeping in the grass while I toil away. And this, friends, is why my mind wanders to ticks.

As we talked about in part one, ticks are endemic in our area. They are prolific and if you live anywhere that has an environment they might like, they will be lurking! This means they’re pretty much everywhere people and pets might be. While they’re nuisance enough when you find one attached to Fido, Frisky or even yourself, keep in mind they can cause much greater consequences to health than just an itchy bite. All species of ticks are capable of carrying various Rickettsial diseases. Sure, not every tick is infected, but many are, and there is no visible way to distinguish carriers from non-carriers. That’s why it’s important to make note when you find a tick on your pet, or yourself, just in case symptoms develop later.

The disease all of us are most likely familiar with is Lyme Disease, most commonly carried by the deer tick. Remember those photos in Part One of that itsy-bitsy dude? He’s a major culprit in spreading a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease. There are other infections that can be transmitted as well. In our area, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Ehrlichiosis are the most common. Additionally ticks can carry Anaplasmosis, Hepatozoonosis and Babesiosis. Wow, that’s a lot of “Osis-es” to keep track of!

What should you be looking for if your dog or cat has had a tick bite? First, I encourage folks to make a note of when a tick exposure occurred. Whether you use an ‘old-fashioned’ piece of paper, or a smart phone, it’s a good idea to mark down when your pet was bitten. This could be a critical bit of information even months in the future. Following this, you’ll want to make sure the wound itself is treated appropriately. Ticks can cause localized infection in the skin where a bite has occurred. They all have rather caustic saliva that aids in taking in blood meals from their host, so even when they’ve been effectively removed, there can be reactions. Sometimes antibiotics are required to treat the tick bite. You should always consult your veterinarian if a wound remains inflamed for more than a few days, or if there is any sort of drainage in the area where a tick was removed. Finally, you need to watch your pet carefully for the next several months for indications that exposure to one of the tick borne diseases has occurred.

Sounds good, doc! I’ve marked my calendar, I’ve cleansed the wound… now what should I be watching for?

It’s hard to say that anything disease related can be fortunate, but in the case of tick borne disease, we are lucky that many of the presenting symptoms are similar. Therefore, we have a rather compact list of problems to watch for following tick exposure. It matters little whether we’re talking about Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Erhlichiosis, for the most part symptoms remain the same. They most commonly are as follows:

1: General malaise– Lethargy and fatigue are often subtle in our fur-friends. We might think they’re just enjoying that earlier mentioned summer day to the fullest, working on their tan, but if Fido has no interest at all in fetching the ball or enjoying a nice ear-rub, he might be having some bigger problems. It’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian if you think your pet is feeling puny.

2: Lameness– Pets that have had exposure to tick diseases commonly develop shifting leg lameness because often the joints are affected. You might notice that Frisky was limping on a right front leg on Monday, then on Wednesday is hobbling on the left rear and by Friday you’re once again sure it’s the right front that’s causing the trouble. If you see these kinds of symptoms a work-up is indicated.

3: In-appetance– I classified this on it’s own. While many times our pets go on and off their food over the course of a muggy summer, if you are noticing a decrease in kibble consumption along with these other symptoms, seek medical care quickly. Lyme disease in its most severe form has the potential to cause kidney damage. Sometimes the first indication that this is happening can be a disinterest in food.

4: Nasal/Ocular drainage– A lot of things can cause runny noses and eyes, particularly in the Ohio River Valley, but this can be a symptom of tick disease, especially if there’s been a known exposure in the recent past.

5: Bleeding or Bruising– A nose bleed and/or bruising on the belly, gums and ears can be a sign of tick disease, in particular Ehrlichiosis. Platelets can become damaged by the disease and blood may not clot normally. As a side note, there are many times sub-clinical/asymptomatic tick disease is diagnosed during blood screens because low platelet values are detected and further testing is done. If your veterinarian suggests additional testing, I highly recommend you heed the advice. Tick diseases can often become chronic.

If your fur-kid shows any of these symptoms, and especially if they show more than one concurrently, seek medical consultation quickly. Testing for tick borne disease comes in a variety of forms. There are heartworm  combination tests that screen for exposure to some Rickettsial diseases, so your pet may be getting a check annually for those.  Additionally, there are serology tests that are specifically designed to check for some or all of the major tick diseases. Typically, it will take several days from the time a blood sample is submitted to return of results. If your pet is very ill, your veterinarian may suggest additional testing as well as treating empirically with appropriate antibiotics while you await results. Due to the debilitating and sometimes even fatal outcome of tick diseases this is often a good idea. Treating in a timely manner often aids in a positive outcome.

This is just a quick overview of what you should consider if your dog or cat has exposure to ticks. Of course, as in most cases, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I encourage you to follow the suggestions made in Part One for reducing your pet’s risk of exposure to these nasty parasites. However, if your pet is exposed, please be aware that any tick can carry disease. It is also essential to keep in mind that symptoms can take months to develop following a tick bite. Don’t discount signs if they develop in June and your pet was bitten way back in March. Seek veterinary attention if there is any question at all. Testing is safe and effective and may save your best friend’s life.

… and now, back to the garden!


Dr. Laura Wagner Avatar