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Those Nasty Ticks and Diseases

By Dr. Greg Martinez, DVM
Updated: 2009-10-13 5:09 PM 3220 Views    Category: Health and Behavior
 
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Tick-borne diseases are those carried and spread by blood-sucking ticks, which inadvertently ingest these "hitchhikers" and transfer them to the next victim. If the immune system of the new host doesn't fight them off, a tick-borne disease can cause the animal to become ill.
 
Treating Abby
 
The trouble with these bugs is they 1) cause vague symptoms that often look like other medical problems or 2) surface in a geographical location that doesn’t normally have many cases of tick-borne diseases. My sister-in-law’s dog, Abby, became ill and was being treated  at a local vet for anemia. Her symptoms were that she generally did not feel well, was weak, not eating and exhibited some soreness in the form of mild joint pain.
 
After a few visits, my sister-in-law asked me for a “second opinion.” She brought Abby to my clinic where I could examine her, review the test results and add my two cents. When I saw Abby, she was very anemic and getting weaker. I determined that she had either an autoimmune blood disorder or a tick-related problem. Blood tests showed that she had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever caused by a rickettsia and spread by dog ticks and wood ticks. The treatment of most tick diseases is with a long course of a tetracycline-type drug called Doxycycline that gets into the blood cells where these small bacteria like to hide. After a couple months on “Doxy” she felt much better and was her old self again.
 
The trouble with these darn tick diseases is that it often takes two to three vet visits to find out that the problem is not one of the more common problems we see in practice, namely: nausea due to garbage, plants, allergenic food or treats, or fatty beef “leftovers;” diarrhea due to the same causes or to bugs such as giardia that are everywhere and carried by lots of animals; strained muscles or backs (including pinched nerves); autoimmune problems; or infections or irritations of internal organs such as the kidney, liver, uterus or prostate. Once vets have tried a couple different medications for these other common maladies without success, they run other tests to rule out other causes, including tick-borne disease.
 
There are two ways to identify these conditions: 1) you can nail down the diagnosis with several $100 to several $1000 worth of tests or 2) treat the suspected case with Doxycycline. Many times tests end up being less than helpful and actually steer us away from the cause of the disease or the results are equivocal and do not explicitly say that tick-borne disease is (or isn’t) a possibility. A diagnostic course of Doxycycline is reasonable and cheap and may save both money and the animal’s life
 
Common Tick-Borne Diseases
 
 Depending on what part of the country you live in, you may need to consider one or more of the following:
 
1. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) that we talked about above. Fever, lethargy, loss of appetite and non-localizing pain were present within 2-3 days of the tick bite and rickettsial infection. Dogs getting a big dose of the rickettsia from an infected tick bite can die within 1 week. Blood splotches on the skin develop in about 20% of affected dogs and may aid diagnosis. Runny eyes and nose, cough, swollen painful lymph nodes, swelling of the legs or skin death can occur. Up to 1/3 of canines will demonstrate symptoms of brain or spinal cord involvement, including partial paralysis, dizziness, stumbling, nerve abnormalities, or signs of meningitis (brain and spinal cord infection). After reading that list, you can understand why RMSF can mimic so many other problems. Again, if vague symptoms drag on, a course of Doxycycline for 3 to 4 weeks may help…if it is RMSF.
 
2. Ehrlichia Canis may cause a swollen spleen, swollen legs, cloudy eyes, pale gums, weight loss, depression and retinal hemorrhages. Blood splotches can occur on the skin or gums. Treat with Doxy for 3 to 4 weeks if suspect.
 
3. Lymes (Borrelia burgdorferi) Clinical syndromes of canine Lyme disease include arthritis, heart inflammation, kidney inflammation, and neurologic abnormalities, just as with RMSF.  Treatment may help, but sometimes the dog can’t fight it off, and the infection hangs on. There is a vaccine for dogs living in a known Lyme disease area. Check with your vet.
 
4. The protozoan parasite, Babesia canis, Rhipicephalus sanguineous is the vector, and the disease affects dogs in the southeast, southwest, far west and increasingly in the mid-Atlantic states. Dogs can have a 2- to 3-day history of fever, decreased appetite, vomiting, runny nose, swollen spleen, swollen painful lymph nodes and dark urine (often mistaken for bloody urine). Doxycycline does not work on this bug, Imidocarb dipropionate (Schering Animal Health) (2.5mg/#) given twice at two-week intervals is an effective therapy.
 
5. Hepatozoon Canis is a protozoal organism that, rather than being transmitted by the bite of a tick, is transmitted when a dog ingests an infected tick. Affected dogs may have fevers accompanied by poor body condition, stiff gait, muscle pain and runny eyes and nose. Clinical signs may be cyclical. The white blood cell count can be extremely high. The earliest cases in the United States were found on the Texas Gulf Coast but subsequently Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia have reported cases. Imidocarb helps fight this bug as well.
 
Just the bite of a tick and a paralyzing neurotoxin can cause some dogs to lose control of their limbs. If you live in a tick-infested area, it is important to know if your vet has seen many of these tick-borne diseases. If the answer is yes, you should use appropriate precautions, including tick-a-cides (e.g., Advantix and Frontline).
 
Also make sure that your dog is eating a healthful, nutritious, diet by adding healthy meats and oils that I talk about in my new book Dog Dish Diet: Sensible Nutrition for Your Dog’s Health. A healthful diet keeps that army of white blood cells on the ready. Prevention is better than having to treat a disease.
 

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Dr. Greg, graduated from UC Davis Veterinary School in 1980, has been an animal lover his whole life. As a teenager, he worked at a pet shop and vet hospital, then attended community college. Since then he has practiced at Gilroy Veterinary Hospital. For the last ten years he has become fascinated with nutrition and health, and has written a book, Dog Dish Diet, available at the website http://www.dogdishdiet.com.
 
 http://dogdishdiet.com
 
 
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