The Halifax region is one of three areas in Nova Scotia that is considered endemic for Lyme disease, with the other two being the South Shore and Pictou County. This means it regularly affects people and animals and care needs to be taken to avoid exposure.
Lyme disease is transmitted by one kind of tick, the black-legged deer tick (Ixodes sp.), and is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. It is important to note that in comparison to people who are very susceptible to Lyme disease, the majority of dogs exposed to Borrelia show no clinical signs. In fact, fewer than 5% of dogs that test positive will get sick from the disease. Symptoms can be vague and often include fever, lack of energy, decreased appetite, lameness, or swelling of the joints. Rarely, Lyme disease affects the kidneys, leading to kidney failure.
When you find a tick on your dog, you can remove it at home with tweezers by grasping the tick close to the skin and gently twisting to remove it. If you do not feel comfortable removing the tick yourself, you can bring your dog to a veterinary clinic to have a staff member remove it for you.
The tick then should be taken to a laboratory for identification. In Halifax, this can be done at no charge at the Museum of Natural History. If the tick is identified to be of the Ixodes family, your vet may recommend that your pet be tested for exposure to Lyme disease. This is a simple blood test that can be performed at your clinic. If the test is positive, your vet will then discuss the treatment options with you.
Because a large percentage of dogs who test positive for Lyme exposure do not actually show clinical signs, your veterinarian will discuss with you whether treatment is warranted. Treatment typically involves several weeks of antibiotics and the prognosis is generally good for most cases. However, if the kidneys are affected, treatment may involve hospitalization and the prognosis, unfortunately, is much worse.
Prevention is always the best medicine. There is a Lyme disease vaccine available, although it is usually reserved for individuals most at risk. Limiting exposure to ticks is important – keep lawns mowed, check for ticks on your dog daily, and use a flea/tick preventative during the warm weather months.
Written by Dr. Jane MacLellan