The Big Three

We’re not talking about Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce with the Boston Celtics or even LeBron, DWade, and Chris Bosh with the Heat.  We’re talking about the three primary tick-borne diseases – anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, and Lyme disease – that effect dogs and humans.  All three share the same form of transmission.  A tick bites an infected animal, with deer and a number of rodents the main reservoirs of the diseases, in the early stage of its life and then attaches itself to a dog, human, or other infected mammal who then acquires the disease.  There is a vaccination for dogs against Lyme disease whose efficacy has been questioned by many, but it does nothing to prevent a dog from becoming infected with either ehrlichiosis or anaplasmosis.
            Anaplasmosis and Lyme disease have the same basic clinical signs which often include a high fever, lethargy, and painful joints.  These problems can vary greatly in degree of severity and the amount of time it takes for them to manifest in an infected dog.  It can take from within a few weeks to years depending on the dog’s immune system’s ability to fight and suppress the infection.  The clinical signs of ehrlichiosis can be similar to the other two and can also include more serious effects like pale gums caused by anemia. It used to be that diagnosing the big three was a difficult, time consuming,  and expensive process that involved sending blood samples out and waiting for results.  Often veterinarians were reluctant to begin any type of treatment until the test results were back and conclusive.  Some of these tests could not differentiate between the actual disease and the antibodies created by the Lyme vaccine.  So if a dog had been vaccinated and then contracted Lyme disease it became even more difficult to diagnose.
            All three of these tick-borne diseases have spread throughout the United States and even around the world — although ehrlichiosis is most common in the Southeast.   It is no longer safe to say that you live in an area that is free from all of these diseases.  In the case of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis, it is not uncommon for a tick to transmit both at the same time.  In the cases of these double infections the clinical signs often are more severe and come on more rapidly.  The overpopulation of deer in many places has been a major contributor to the spread of these diseases and some localities have gone to the extreme of putting out deer feeders that cause an insecticide to be applied to every deer that grabs some grain.  Controlling the incidence of these diseases among the dogs in your kennel requires a multifaceted approach that includes prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
            The most obvious form of prevention is the diligent use of one of the topical insecticides.  The currently available products which are based on fipronil or selamectin are relatively safe and easy to use for most dogs.  Many of these products provide flea protection as well and directions should be read carefully as more frequent application is required for protection from ticks.  In addition to topical insecticides on your dog, you need to be concerned about the immediate area around your kennel.  Keeping the area well mowed and clear of debris where mice and other small rodents might live should be a part of the program.  You should also do what you can to keep deer away from your kennel, which in many parts of the country is a lot easier said than done.  If your tick problem is extreme you may have to consider some sort of program of spraying in the area around your kennel.  Even the most diligent tick control program is unlikely to be 100 percent effective.  Therefore, you have to be alert to the possible signs of these diseases.
            In field trial dogs we most often detect illness in our dogs by a drop off in their performance ability.  When a dog suddenly begins to lose a step in workouts or seems stiff and/or in pain, we need to be alert to the possibility of a tick-borne disease.  In a recent case, a dog that had shown no preliminary symptoms ran just fine in a workout and then lost its appetite.  Within two days it could barely drag itself out of the sleeping box in its kennel.  Rapid diagnosis and treatment becomes even more critical in these types of extreme cases.
            Fortunately two factors have changed in the diagnosis of tick-borne diseases.  First, most vets have become far too familiar with the outward clinical signs of the diseases due to their increased incidence among the clients of most veterinary practices.  The second factor is the availability of an easy to use in-clinic test that detects all three tick-borne diseases as well as heartworm.  The Snap 4Dx test created by Idexx Laboratories requires a small blood sample and takes less than 10 minutes to present a result.  In the case above, the test showed the dog had a double infection of both Lyme disease and anaplasmosis.  The Snap 4Dx test does not give a false positive for dogs that have been vaccinated against Lyme disease.  Prior to the Snap 4Dx test a blood sample had to be sent out for either an ELISA or Western Blot test which could take a week to 10 days depending on where you lived and how the sample was sent.  Once you know if a dog has a tick-borne disease, treatment is rather straight forward.
            In most cases, three to four weeks of doxycycline at the rate of 100mg twice a day (with food) is recommended for field trial size dogs.  If a dog is especially lame from inflamed joints a veterinarian may also prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug.  With the case mentioned earlier the dog appeared pain free within a week and seemed 100 percent before the end of the treatment with antibiotics.
            A couple of notes of caution should be added here.  First, some large kennel operations have begun using a regular course of antibiotics as a preventative rather than testing and treating individual dogs.  There are some major drawbacks to this practice as there can be negative side effects to the drugs as they kill helpful bacteria in the gut that aid digestion and in the nasal passages that aid in scenting.  In addition, long term and/or frequent use of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
            The other caution regards pregnant bitches.  Certain antibiotics can cause a reaction in the bitch which brings about absorption of the fetuses.  To further complicate the situation with an infected pregnant bitch, the tick-borne infection, if it progresses, can cause the same reaction.  Where treatment is necessary during pregnancy, owners need to proceed with caution and seek out professional advice as to alternatives to the usual course of antibiotics.
            Chances are even the most diligent kennel managers are going to experience cases of tick-borne disease among the dogs in their care.  You need to be alert to the possible symptoms and then seek a firm diagnosis followed by aggressive treatment to avoid long term damage to your dogs from the big three.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring Issue of Field Trial Magazine.)

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