As disease-ridden ticks become more numerous and widespread in Maine, many veterinarians are suggesting that dog owners invest in both a canine Lyme vaccine and some form of tick preventative treatment year round. In recent years, these anti-tick treatments have been refined and improved, offering dogs better protection against tick-borne infections that can cause serious complications and even death.
“Neither [treatment] is 100 percent,” said Joycelyn Layman, manager of Southern Maine Veterinary Care, “so you have to make sure you’re safeguarding as much as possible.”
Lyme disease, which can be transmitted to dogs through the bite of a black-legged tick (also known as a deer tick), is now a chief concern for pet owners in Maine. In dogs, the disease can be debilitating and in rare cases can lead to kidney failure and, therefore, death. But Lyme isn’t the only tick-borne disease plaguing dogs in the Northeast.
“Anaplasmosis is another disease carried by deer ticks that we’re seeing a lot of, at least in southern Maine,” said Dr. Anne Del Borgo, veterinarian and owner of Sunray Animal Clinic in Brunswick. “It’s just about as common to test positive for that as Lyme, and there’s no vaccine against it … So a strong flea and tick prevention is necessary. You want to do both.”
Flea and tick preventative treatments, which repel and kill ticks, come in many forms. There are topical solutions (a liquid applied to the dog’s back), oral medications (usually taken once a month) or collars.
“It really depends on the dog and their lifestyle,” said Dr. Karen James, veterinarian at Maine Coast Veterinary Hospital. “If your dog goes swimming all the time, it may not be the best to have a topical treatment.”
Also, some dogs get bad skin reactions to topical treatments, she explained. On the other hand, some dogs vomit oral treatments. That’s why veterinarians offer multiple types of tick and flea preventatives that they’ve researched and have deemed safe and effective.
“Some of the new products that dogs take orally seem to have a lot of promise and seem to be working very well and are very safe,” Del Borgo said. “And there are new flea and tick collars that are really effective. There are a lot of good choices right now. This is a field where we’re definitely seeing a lot of rapid advancement changes and improvements. I think the overall products are much better than they were 10 or 15 years ago.”
Similarly, Lyme vaccines for dogs have improved in recent years so that they’re safer and more effective at preventing Lyme, Del Borgo said.
“There’s been a lot of research that’s gone into refining these vaccines,” said Del Borgo, who now recommends a Lyme vaccine to almost all of the canine patients, with the exception of dogs who react poorly to vaccines.
Another new development is that ticks are now seen as a year-round problem in Maine, especially along the southern areas of the coast where the winter is usually milder.
“Lyme used to be kind of a seasonal issue, and now we test dogs positive for Lyme year-round,” Del Borgo said. “We’re starting to see ticks in February, even. Every time we have a thaw, ticks will come around. That never used to be the case.”
Tick season as we knew it no longer exists, but there’s still a consensus that ticks are much more active in the spring and fall, with a lull of activity in the summer and winter. This pattern is due to temperature and moisture.
Ticks are only active when temperatures reach above freezing, and they dry out easily. That means during spring, when the air warms and there’s plenty of water on the ground, tick activity is in full swing.
“They like dampness,” Layman said, “so when the snow starts to melt and they have some grassy areas, ticks will head to those areas.” Tick experts advise keeping your lawn mowed because ticks thrive in tall grasses. And dog owners can minimize the amount of contact their dogs have with ticks by walking them on leash rather than letting them crash through the underbrush and other tick-filled areas.
Another way to protect dogs from ticks is by dressing them in tick-repellent clothing, such as the bright dog vests made by Dog Not Gone, a Skowhegan company.
But at the end of the day, after taking all those measures to protect your dog, it’s still important to check your dog’s body for ticks frequently by combing through their fur with eyes and hands, searching for spots and bumps. Then, if a tick has managed to latch onto your pooch, remove it by grasping the head of the tick (or as close as you can get) with tweezers or a tick spoon and pulling the pest away from your dog until it releases its hold.
For dogs, the common symptoms of Lyme — and the similar tick-borne disease anaplasmosis — are lameness, loss of appetite, reduced energy, stiffness, swelling of the joints, general discomfort and fever. It also is possible for cats to be infected with Lyme as well, though it’s not as frequently diagnosed.
“We don’t have a vaccine for cats so your best defense is to make sure you’re treating your cats with an effective flea and tick [repellent] medication to prevent them from being bitten in the first place,” Del Borgo said, who diagnoses a few cats with Lyme each year.
Veterinarians detect Lyme disease and anaplasmosis with blood tests, then treat the infections with antibiotics.
“The tick pressure is growing every year,” said James. “Lyme is a disease that wasn’t here years ago. Nobody remembers having ticks growing up, and now they’re a thing that’s here to stay.”