Spring Time… Tick Time!

There are ticks under those snowbanks!

It’s hard to believe life can survive beneath this year’s massive crop of snowbanks, yet roses will grow, grass will return and tens of thousands of ticks will soon beat them both out as the first sign of spring.

This winter’s extremes won’t have made a dent in the burgeoning local tick population. As soon as the snow cover is off the ground and temperatures nudge above 4 degrees, ticks will emerge for the active phase of their life cycle. The number that will be carrying with them the threat of Lyme Disease has more than tripled in just a few years. Thanks to climate change and migratory bird patterns, Quinte West has become an endemic region for Lyme. Even areas north of the 401 are now affected.

Most local people with outdoorsy dogs know all about ticks by now. The little spider-like vampires start off the size of a flea and grow to corn-kernel dimensions after a day or two of feeding on blood– your dog’s, a deer’s, yours? But what used to be a distasteful, occasional job for tweezers, is fast becoming an important health threat of even more concern for humans than for my four-legged patients.

Just last year, Bill C442, the Canadian National Lyme Disease Strategy Act passed another legislative hurdle on its way to becoming law. The Bill’s aim is to provide unified national guidelines for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease in people, as well as to promote high profile education campaigns to help us all help ourselves.

Lyme disease is preventable. Don’t let ticks bite and if they do, get them off quickly so they don’t have a chance to transmit the disease. This applies equally to people and pets, but Lyme doesn’t act the same in all species. About 95 per cent of people bitten by a Lyme-infected tick will get sick, compared with only about 5 per cent of dogs. The human illness is also more severe and harder to diagnose, due to a wide range of vague symptoms. In dogs the predominant signs are lameness and lethargy. We don’t believe cats are affected.

So, when we hit that magical 4 degree mark, think tick prevention. The species that carries Lyme is most common in the underbrush of forests. Keep your dogs on leash, on the trails with you and the kids – all with your pant-legs properly tucked into your socks. It’s not geeky, it’s true outdoors common-sense.

After any outdoor activities, everyone gets tick-checked. This can be hard in long-haired, dark-coloured dogs and may be a good reason to clip coats short for tick season. It generally takes 36 to 48 hours for a tick to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Symptoms in dogs can take months to develop.

People can use DEET to reduce the risk of a tick attaching to their skin, but the pesticide is toxic if ingested by dogs. In Canada, we now have 3 products that are effective against ticks including a spot-on called Advantix that stops the majority of tick attachments on dogs. It is recommended that tick prevention strategies be followed right through until the ground is snow-covered again. Even in the heat of summer, immature ticks called nymphs are present in large numbers and they too transmit disease.

Lyme disease is poorly understood and, as a result, there is a lot of misinformation broadcast about it. For more information about the condition in dogs, check out the Veterinary Partner website. There is also a website run by the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation for the human side of the story.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Trenton/Quinte West
March, 2014