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  • Writer's pictureDr. Keaton Massie

Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs and Horses

While it is well-known that fleas and ticks are a common problem for pets, many pet owners may not be aware of the harmful diseases these pesky parasites can transmit to their beloved companions. One such disease is Lyme disease, which can affect both humans and pets.

By Dr. Keaton Massie, DVM

Massie Veterinary Services

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted through the bite of Ixodes ticks, commonly known as deer ticks or black-legged ticks. Deer ticks are commonly found in forested or grassy areas. near bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, or oceans. They feed on infected animals, mostly wildlife like deer, and spread the disease when they feed on humans, horses, dogs, and other pets.

As a result, outdoor activities such as camping or hiking with your dog, grazing your horses through pasture as well as other routine backyard activities may expose animals to these ticks and increase the risk of contracting Lyme disease.

Does My Dog or Horse Have Lyme Disease?

Whenever I’ve had to diagnose a pet with Lyme disease, I often notice that pet owners get confused about the symptoms. You see, there are several problems with Lyme disease. The first is that animals may not show serious symptoms for weeks or even months after a tick bite. The second is that the symptoms mimic more common conditions, making them more difficult to diagnose. And the most difficult part of the disease is that Lyme disease can lay dormant for extended periods of time resulting in speradic relapses of the signs which may have gone away.

A common indication of the disease in horses is lameness that may shift from limb to limb and joint to joint. Affected horses may also experience general stiffness, joint swelling, fever, lethargy, Uveitis, or significant weight loss. They may act sensitive and jumpy when touched, or exhibit neurological symptoms like ataxia, behavior changes, and depression.

The symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs can be similar to those seen in horses and most commonly the only problem is sore joints. Signs in your dog and may include fever, anorexia, and lethargy., and sore joints -- sometimes arthritis. If left untreated, Lyme disease can progress into more chronic disorders like kidney failure and heart and neurological complications in dogs.

To diagnose your animal with Lyme disease it is a simple blood test that your veterinarian can do. However as simple as the test can be, the results can be confusing due to that dormant phase of the disease.

How To Prevent Lyme Disease

Tick infestation under the jaw and throatlatch of a horse

The first and most important way to prevent Lyme disease is by reducing your animal’s exposure to Ticks. This may be a combination of environmental, chemical, and physical control methods. Spraying the environment for ticks is the most thorough way to manage them, however, when you have large acreage this can be very difficult.

Vaccinations are an effective way to try and prevent Lyme disease. Discuss with your veterinarian about getting your horse or dog vaccinated. Vaccinations however will not prevent the ticks from getting onto your animal.

For horses

Environmental control measures such as keeping pastures trimmed, clearing brushes, and removing leaf litter can reduce the tick population. You should also keep horses out of heavily wooded areas.

Ticks like to hide in long tail hair. Photo: Farm & Field 2012

Insecticides/repellents such as pyrethroids can be used to kill ticks on horses. These products are typically applied topically or sprayed onto the horse's coat. When selecting a tick repellent, choose products that are specifically labeled for use against ticks, follow product label instructions, and consult with your veterinarian before using them on your horses. Be careful to apply the repellent to areas of the horse's body where ticks are likely to climb, such as the legs, head, neck, belly, and tail.

Common products that can be used are: Frontline, Equispot, and Vectra 3D. Physical control methods such as wearing fly sheets and blankets can prevent ticks from attaching to horses. These products can be treated with repellents to provide additional protection against ticks.

An article published by the American Association of Equine Practitioners advises that you can also apply tick repellants in your barn and pastures with caution. "Pyrethrin, Permethrin, Cypermethrin, and commercial grade pyrethroids can be applied to pastures and paddocks to destroy ticks in the environment but label directions should be closely followed or a professional pest control specialist hired to apply them. When using pesticides of any type it is important to carefully read the label as the product may be contraindicated in some horses. Especially foals under the age of three months."

Lyme Disease Prevention in Dogs

The best way to prevent ticks in dogs is by getting them vaccinated. Always consult with your veterinarian before using any vaccine. Also, do not allow your dog to roam in wooded or grassy areas, and always stick to marked trails when going hiking. Keeping the grass on your property mowed and trimmed, as well as removing leaf piles from shady areas around shrubs, walls, and fences can also minimize tick infestations.

While topical flea and tick collars, shampoos, and other spot-on products can be effective in preventing tick bites, it is important to check with your veterinarian before using them to ensure they are safe and appropriate for your pet.

Proper Grooming

Finally, pet owners should know that it is very easy for ticks to get attached to animal coats and furs. Ticks are notoriously difficult to find, particularly on horses, as they are small, slow-moving, and dark-colored.

Daily grooming sessions are therefore essential for both pets and humans who spend time in tick-infested areas. When checking for ticks on horses, be sure to look in secluded areas where ticks like to hide, such as the ears, under the jaw, under the mane, and inside the legs. Keep a pair of tweezers on hand while grooming and, if you find a tick that has latched on, remove it carefully by grasping it gently at the head, as close as possible to the horse's skin, and lifting it straight up. Do not squeeze the body of the tick, as this can push disease-causing agents down into the horse's bloodstream.

Removing ticks daily, even after they have already bitten, can significantly decrease the likelihood of your animal horse developing Lyme disease because many studies have found that it takes up to between 16 and 24 hours for a feeding tick to transmit B. burgdorferi Lyme disease to its host.

As I said earlier, dogs and horses can go asymptomatic for long periods of time, so every symptom should be treated with urgency. Treatment of Lyme disease usually involves a course of antibiotics such as doxycycline or minocycline and can last several weeks. In severe cases, supportive care such as anti-inflammatory medication and intravenous fluids may be necessary.

Lyme disease is a serious condition that can have devastating effects on horses and dogs. I strongly recommend that pet owners take tick prevention seriously and work with their veterinarians to develop a comprehensive prevention plan. Download the Equine Disease Communication Center fact sheet about Lyme Disease here. Do you have any more questions about Lyme disease? Contact me below.

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