Why Ticks Are a Threat to Your Entire Family

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Sabal Chase Animal Clinic

Earlier this year, as the country began to thaw, veterinarians were warned to expect an especially high “tick bloom”. Sure enough, as warm winters in the south and record snowfall in the north gave way to sizzling spring and summer temperatures, a perfect storm for an increase in tick populations was born.

While those of us here in Miami and Broward have grown accustomed to three-day “winters”, our neighbors to the north were taken by surprise. New England got more snowfall in the month of February than they usually receive all year.

How could bugs that spend the winter hibernating underground possibly survive one of the harshest winters in recorded history? In point of fact, the snow actually helped them! The back-to-back blizzards led to months worth of snow cover, which insulated ground temperatures against the frigid, arctic air. Ticks are tough, extremely adaptable and more plentiful than ever before.

There’s something intrinsically cringe-worthy about the sight of a tick feeding on a pet. As one of my nurses so eloquently puts it, “They’re just nasty!” But even nastier are diseases they carry, and the fact that a single tick can carry several of them at once.

Perhaps the most well-known tick-borne illness is Lyme disease. Thankfully, Lyme disease is seldom seen here in Dade and Broward Counties. But make no mistake - Lyme is prevalent in the rest of the state. While there is a vaccine that protects dogs against Lyme disease, it is not generally recommended here in our area. If, however, you plan to take your pet north of Broward County, you may want to contact some local veterinary hospitals and ask for their recommendations.

Start your research early, as not all veterinary hospitals in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties stock the vaccine. If you choose to vaccinate, bear in mind that the same species of ticks responsible for Lyme disease can carry other diseases as well. Additionally, the vaccine does not protect against all known strains of Lyme. For the most effective protection, ask your vet which types of topical or chewable preventatives he/she recommends, and get those on board as well.

Tell your regular veterinarian if your dog has been to an area where Lyme disease is common. Since it is so rarely seen in our area, it is not always a primary rule out when diagnosing a sick pet. For the CDC’s most recent map of reported cases of Lyme disease, click here.

Many of my clients struggle with the decision of whether or not they should vaccinate against Lyme disease. For what it’s worth, I do not routinely vaccinate my own two dogs, as they rarely travel north of our Dade County zip code. That being said, when we brought them with us to a ranch in Ocala, we made absolutely certain they were vaccinated. Ditto for the dog-friendly trip to St. Augustine.

Lyme disease is a threat to humans as well as well as pets - bring repellents for the entire family, and don’t give in if the kids protest their use.

The most common tick seen in South Florida is the brown dog tick. These critters can carry ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis and babesiosis, the latter of which appears to be on the rise. Signs of these tick-borne diseases are varied and vague. The more common symptoms are anemia, lethargy, depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, pale gums and bruising. Lameness, joint swelling, and nosebleeds can appear in dogs who have been incubating tick-borne diseases for longer periods of time.

These ticks are everywhere in South Florida, so don’t be lured into a false sense of security if your pet would rather be indoors. In the time it takes Fluffy to “do her business” in the yard, a few greedy ticks will happily hitch a ride. And just like their canine hosts, brown dog ticks thrive inside our houses. In fact they’d love nothing more than to raise their children and grandchildren in the fabrics and baseboards of your happy, air-conditioned home! This is what’s known as an infestation, and it can happen faster than you can say “but my house is clean.” Ticks love a clean house as much as we do. Take prevention seriously.

Lone star ticks, a.k.a “seed ticks” are another common pest in Southern Florida. These guys are not picky about their food sources. In addition to dogs and cats, the lone star tick loves to feed on squirrels, rabbits, and ground-feeding birds. These hosts will often bring the ticks into our yards, where they will eagerly search for their next meal. While this might include our pets, it can also include us and our children.

These delightful creatures often feed in groups or “swarms”, and it is not unusual for a person to pick up 20 to several hundred seed ticks at a time. Lone star ticks carry ehrlichiosis, southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI) and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Contrary to what the name implies, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is NOT a “western” disease. It has been found throughout the U.S. and Canada, and is especially common in the Southeastern United States. While infected humans tend to develop rashes, infected dogs do not. The most common clinical signs in dogs include neurological problems and joint stiffness.

The American dog tick is another carrier of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Additionally this bug secretes a toxic substance that can cause temporary paralysis when it attaches to the base of the skull or spinal column. This is known as “tick paralysis” and has been seen in children as well as pets. Fortunately, the paralysis resolves within a day or two or removing the offending tick.

Cat owners, take note - contrary to popular belief, cats can and do get ticks. While cats are indeed meticulous groomers, ticks literally hang on for dear life. They can be carried into the house by humans and dogs, and outdoor cats are at an even higher risk.

As I mentioned before, the lone star tick is not picky about its host. And the American dog tick is the likely carrier of an emerging tick-borne disease called cytauxzoonis. This new disease is poorly understood, but is becoming a threat to cats in certain states - including Florida. Symptoms include lethargy, anorexia, depression, dehydration, fever, weakness and collapse.

There is no known cure or documented effective treatment. Mortality rates are nearly 100 percent and most infected cats succumb to the disease within seven days of the onset of clinical signs. Prevention is the only protection we can offer them, so when you’re picking up preventatives for the dogs in your life, please do not forget about your cats!

Most tick-borne diseases have the potential to affect humans as well as pets. So remember, you’re not just protecting your dogs and cats - you’re protecting yourself and your family as well.

Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Click here to send him an email.

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