Ticks are a big deal. Ticks once confined to certain geographic regions have expanded their ranges. The type of number of diseases that a certain species of tick may be carrying has changed dramatically in a relatively short time period as well.
For example, let’s look at Ixodes Scapularis, the deer tick, which we see in our area. When I moved to this region a decade ago, we were mainly seeing dogs infected with Lyme Disease. The majority of these dogs had the classic signs of fever, joint pain that shifted from leg to leg and lack of appetite. Gradually, we started seeing sick dogs that mimicked some of the signs of Lyme but weren’t testing positive. We began sending off blood panels to the lab to look for an expanded range of tick diseases and started commonly coming across another bacteria carried by ticks, Anaplasma.
Today, we are dealing with ticks that are co-infected, or carrying multiple bacteria capable of infecting us and our dogs. Prevalence maps of dogs in St. Louis County show one in six dogs test positive for Lyme Disease or Anaplasma or both.
Dogs are considered “sentinels” for tick diseases. In other words, the risk a dog has for contracting one of these diseases directly correlates to the risk to humans in the region. There is a vaccine to protect against Lyme Disease but nothing currently for Anaplasma. At-risk dogs should be vaccinated for Lyme Disease and placed on a tick preventative. Interestingly, there is no evidence that cats are susceptible to either of these diseases.
Q: Many pet owners are skeptical about the value of heartworm prevention in our northern climate. We don't get many cases here. Can I go without heartworm medicine for my dog?
I speak with many people who are skeptical about the need for heartworm preventative. In reality, we do have a low incidence of heartworm disease this far north because our mosquito season is so short and the conditions aren't ideal for mosquitos to harbor heartworm disease. But that’s not the case just a couple of hours south of here. Any dog traveling to the Twin Cities has a real risk of coming into contact with a mosquito potentially carrying the heartworm infection.
In my practice, based on the recommendation on the Companion Animal Parasite Council, we have moved toward recommending heartworm preventative on a year-round basis. Something that the majority of the public does not know is that most heartworm preventatives on the market treat not only heartworm but also the roundworm and hookworm internal parasites. Both of these intestinal parasites have the potential to infect people, something called a zoonotic disease.
When you look at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10,000 people annually are diagnosed with roundworm infections. These infections can lead to neurologic conditions and potential blindness in humans. The majority of puppies and kittens are infected with roundworms, as are raccoons that may be using our backyards as latrines which our pets can easily come into contact. Roundworms are spread through the fecal/oral route. Children are at the greatest risk of infection, as they tend not to practice appropriate hand washing, spend time in sandboxes that pets frequent and indiscriminately put items into their mouths.
Keeping our dogs on year-round preventatives deworms our pets on a monthly basis, stopping these infections, which have the potential to harm people. Heartworm preventative is just one of the benefits of using these products on a monthly basis.