Ticks are a year-round menace in Virginia, and can transmit dangerous diseases that cause serious health issues for your pet. Our Staples Mill Animal Hospital team prioritizes your pet’s wellbeing, and we explain things you need to know about Lyme disease to safeguard your four-legged friend.

#1: Exposure to ticks increases your pet’s risk for Lyme disease

Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, are transmitted by the blacklegged, or deer, tick. An infected tick that attaches to your pet can transmit Lyme disease through their saliva if they remain attached for about 36 hours. Pets who frequent areas with tall grasses, wooded locations, or marshes, where ticks are commonly found, are at increased risk for Lyme disease. However, ticks can easily hitch a ride on your clothing or get indoors on rodents, which means that indoor pets are also susceptible to the disease. 

#2: Lyme disease takes time to affect your pet

After an infected tick bites your pet, signs can take five months or more to manifest, so you may not remember finding a tick on your pet when they start showing signs. Potential Lyme disease signs include:

  • Fever
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy 
  • Swollen joints
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Recurrent or shifting leg lameness
  • Kidney disease

The most serious long-term complications associated with Lyme disease are chronic joint disease and glomerular disease, a type of kidney damage that occurs when the immune system is chronically stimulated, which affects the kidneys’ ability to filter toxins. Signs include vomiting, weight loss, increased thirst and urination, and abnormal fluid accumulation in the limbs.

#3: Your pet can be tested for Lyme disease

Antibodies are proteins produced by your pet’s immune system in response to infections such as Lyme disease that bind to the bacteria surface to help eliminate the infection. Specific blood tests can detect antibodies directed against proteins on the bacterial surface. An in-house assay can give a quick positive or negative response, but cannot detect early infection, while a more complex test, called the multiplex assay, can determine if a pet is acutely or chronically infected, and can also distinguish between infected versus vaccinated pets. Other diagnostics that may be recommended if we suspect your pet has Lyme disease include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) — We may recommend a CBC to evaluate your pet’s white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. 
  • Biochemistry profile — A biochemistry profile provides valuable information about your pet’s health, and helps us determine if their kidneys are affected.
  • X-rays — We may recommend X-rays to evaluate your pet if they have swollen joints or lameness.
  • Joint fluid cytology — If your pet has a swollen joint, we may take a fluid sample from the joint to examine under a microscope.

#4: Lyme disease can be difficult to treat

Lyme disease is typically treated with antibiotics, but the infection can take weeks or months to clear, and signs frequently recur once treatment is stopped. In addition, when infection settles in the joints, permanent damage can occur, and lifelong treatment to manage pain may be required. In cases involving kidney disease, intensive care is necessary to help prevent further kidney damage. 

#5: Lyme disease is a year-round risk for pets

The peak tick season in Virginia is April through September, but the parasites are active all year long. Deer ticks don’t go dormant in the winter, but will find shelter in leaf litter, and actively look for their next meal when temperatures go above freezing. In addition, in cold weather, wild animals such as deer can serve as a warm hiding place for these parasites, and when they detach, your pet may be their next victim.

#6: Lyme disease can affect you and your family

Lyme disease is a zoonotic disease, which means that the pathogen can affect people and animals. While you can’t catch Lyme disease from your pet, if they are sick, you were likely exposed to Lyme-infected ticks. After an infected tick bites, most people develop a non-painful red rash (i.e., an erythema migrans, or bull’s-eye rash) around the bite. Other potential signs include fatigue, fever, headache, muscle and joint aches, and enlarged lymph nodes.

#7: Prevention is the best way to protect your pet from Lyme disease

The following steps are recommended to help safeguard your pet from Lyme disease:

  • Provide parasite preventives — Ensure your pet receives year-round tick prevention medication. Our team can help determine the best product for your pet.
  • Check for ticks — After being outside, check yourself and your pet for ticks. Common attachment places on pets include around the ears, eyes, and tail, under the front legs and collar, and between the back legs and toes.
  • Create a tick-safe zone in your yard — Landscaping techniques that help reduce tick habitats in your yard include frequent lawn mowing, leaf litter removal, and installing fencing to discourage wild animals from entering your yard.
  • Vaccinate your pet — A Lyme vaccine is available for dogs, and our team can help determine if your pet is a good candidate.

Don’t let your pet be a tick target by providing an appropriate year-round parasite preventive. If you find a tick on your pet, contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Staples Mill Animal Hospital, so we can help identify the tick species and determine if your pet is at risk for Lyme disease.