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Pets can get Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, too

Maryann Fuhrmann and Bella.
Maryann Fuhrmann and Bella.

Two years ago, after a routine blood test, Maryann Fuhrmann's 9-year-old Maltese mix, Bella, was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

"I see tons of ticks on her all the time, but (her) being white," she said, "they're easy to spot, and I am fanatical about checking her over every time I come in the house, so I don't know how it got by, but I really feel like I let her down."

The diagnosis was a surprise. Bella showed no symptoms of Lyme disease. And that's not uncommon. A lot of pets test positive for Lyme, but a small fraction of them actually develop the clinical disease.  In Monroe County, 1,574 pets tested positive for Lyme disease in 2018. So far this year, 538 got a positive test.

Samantha Murray, a small animal internal medicine specialist at Monroe Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services, is Bella's vet. She says the symptoms -- if there are any -- can show up months after a tick bite.

"Most commonly if a pet develops signs of Lyme disease, it's malaise, fever, joint pain," Murray said. "They just feel kind of like a dishrag."

Many pets improve within a few days of the typical round of antibiotic treatment. A smaller percentage of dogs can go on to develop a secondary illness like polyarthritis or a type of kidney disease called Lyme nephritis, which is serious and life-threatening.

That's what happened to Bella. Her kidney disease was diagnosed a year after her Lyme disease diagnosis. Fuhrmann is pretty sure the tick that carried the disease landed on her dog right in her Webster backyard.

"I've got two-and-a-half acres, and it's so beautiful. But there (are) deer in the yard every day, a couple times a day, and it's not safe to go back there anymore. I bring her to places like this," Fuhrmann said while walking in Ellison Park, "so I can kind of minimize the contact by staying on the road and stuff like that. No more hiking."

Bella was wearing a flea and tick collar when the tick bite would have happened. She has one on all the time, and Fuhrmann replaces it every four to five months.

But Murray said no prevention method is 100% effective.

"For those collars, one of the things we see a lot is, the pets are wearing the collars, but they're maybe not always wearing them as they're designed to be worn, which is to say they should be contacting the skin," Murray said. "Not so tight as to be constricting the airways, certainly, but actually touching the skin so the collar is doing its job."

In some cases, she said, it's best to combine different topical and oral treatments. And it's very important to carefully remove any ticks you find on your pet with a tweezer.

"They sometimes look like a little wart or a skin tag, even," Murray explained. "A lot of times they're going to be around the ears or the neck."

Murray said getting tested for tick-borne disease the day or week you find a tick on your pet is too early.  It takes a few weeks to determine if a disease was transmitted. And dogs aren't the only species that can get sick from a tick bite. Cats can be susceptible, too, especially if they go outdoors.

"For those cats that are roaming outside, prevention and screening is a good idea for them, too," Murray said.

Lyme and other tick-borne diseases don't spread between animals and humans. You have to get a tick bite to be infected.

Fuhrman said Bella's illness has led her to change the way she lives in some ways.

"Another thing that I can't do anymore is feed the birds and feed stuff that comes around that I like to watch because of animals like raccoons and squirrels and chipmunks who may have ticks on them," she said. "I'm just too afraid to do it anymore."

Ticks are the most active in the spring, summer, and fall. They like to take cover in shaded, cooler areas like brush or tall grass.

As Fuhrmann and Bella walk away on a wide, gravel path in the park, they're enjoying a rare, sunny day and Fuhrmann doesn't take their time together for granted.

"The prognosis is managing her condition for maybe one year; maybe four years," she said. "That's just too soon to think about letting her go."

Resources for preventing tick-borne disease in pets

The Companion Animal Parasite Councilhas data on the prevalence of ticks in geographic areas, tick prevention products, and some general information about tick-borne diseases.

The University of Rhode Island has this chartto help identify various types of ticks.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.