Each spring, ticks crawl out from their winter hiding places, hungry for their next meal. They wait on the end of a grass blade or leaf, and grab onto the first warm body that brushes past. A tick that latches onto your pet may do more damage than stealing a bit of blood—it can transmit dangerous diseases while feeding. Tick-borne diseases are a world-wide problem for pets and people, including Tennessee pets—according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, almost 10,000 Tennessee pets were diagnosed with tick-borne diseases last year. Read on to learn about the diseases ticks can transmit to your pet, and how to prevent them.    

How can my pet pick up a tick?

Ticks hang out mainly in high grass and wooded areas, so dogs who go hiking, camping, or romping through the woods are at highest risk of picking one up, and contracting disease. However, ticks can also be found in your backyard, and one may crawl onto your pet when they are lounging on the lawn, or simply taking a potty break. If your diva-like Yorkie never leaves the house, but you love to walk through the woods, you can easily bring a tick home on your clothes that will find its way onto your pet. Although dogs who actively venture into known tick hotbeds are obviously at highest risk, almost any pet can pick up a tick. 

What diseases can ticks transmit to my pet?

Since they feed mainly on wild animals, ticks serve as significant disease vectors throughout the world. While feasting on a host’s blood, ticks can ingest pathogenic bacteria that they can pass to future hosts. In Tennessee, the most common diseases ticks can transmit to your pet include:

  • Lyme disease — Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted mainly by the black-legged tick, or deer tick. Animals do not develop the target-shaped rash characteristic of Lyme disease in people, and initial signs are often vague, including:
    • Fever
    • Lethargy
    • Decreased appetite
    • Painful joints
    • Lameness
    • Swollen lymph nodes

If the bacteria are not eradicated quickly, by treatment or the animal’s immune system, the infection can progress to cause heart, nervous system, or kidney damage, and the resulting kidney failure is typically fatal. 

  • Anaplasmosis — Anaplasmosis can be caused by two bacteria species—Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Anaplasma platys. Anaplasma phagocytophilum infection typically affects the body’s joints, causing joint pain and arthritis, but can less commonly cause the following:
    • Vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Coughing
    • Breathing difficulties
    • Meningitis
    • Neurologic problems

Anaplasma platys infection causes infectious cyclic thrombocytopenia, a recurring platelet deficiency that can lead to blood clotting problems, and chronic blood loss. Affected dogs may lose blood in the feces or urine, develop bruising or petechiae (i.e., multiple, pin-point bruises) on the skin, or have nose bleeds.

Anaplasma infections can be treated, but early detection is important, to prevent long-term joint or organ damage. 

  • Ehrlichiosis — Several tick species can transmit Ehrlichia canis, the causative agent of canine ehrlichiosis. This bacteria first attacks a pet’s white blood cells, causing short-time signs that may include:
    • Fever
    • Lethargy
    • Decreased appetite
    • Lymph node swelling
    • Limb swelling
    • Coughing
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Splenic enlargement
    • Decreased platelet numbers

Most dogs recover from the initial phase on their own, and may eliminate the infection, or they may develop chronic ehrlichiosis, which can affect almost any body system, and can cause life-threatening complications, such as:

    • Severe weight loss
    • Kidney failure
    • Splenic enlargement
    • Lung inflammation
    • Ocular inflammation
    • Neurologic problems
    • Decreased blood cell numbers

If ehrlichiosis is not treated, the many complications can lead to long-term organ damage, and death.

How can I know if my pet has a tick-borne disease?

Although many animals with tick-borne diseases become sick, some infections can remain silent, or cause only mild symptoms, for long periods. Knowing whether your pet has been exposed to one of these dangerous diseases is vital, so the bacteria can be eradicated before the infection causes long-term, or life-threatening, damage. At Belmont Animal Hospital, we recommend annual blood testing to screen your pet for tick-borne diseases. We can run a 4Dx test, which screens for Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis, as well as heartworm disease, with only a few drops of your pet’s blood, in our hospital. After approximately 10 minutes, we can tell if your pet has been exposed to one of these diseases, and start treatment to eliminate the infection.

How can I prevent my pet from contracting a tick-borne disease?

Using a pet-safe tick preventive is the best way to protect your pet. Although tick preventives do not repel ticks, they kill them shortly after attachment, which greatly reduces the chances of disease transmission, since we know that most diseases are passed from ticks after long periods (i.e., more than 24 hours) of attachment. We stock a number of effective tick preventives in our hospital and online pharmacy that can keep your pet safe all year long. Many tick preventives also protect pets against fleas and other pests, and a Belmont Animal Hospital team member can help you choose the product that best fits your pet’s needs. 

You cannot prevent most pet diseases, but you can protect your pet against these infections. Contact us if your dog is due for annual disease screening, or needs a monthly tick preventive refill.