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August 12, 2009

Lyme Disease Afflicts Area Dogs



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When an East Hampton couple noticed their dog limping and unable to fully control his left leg, they feared the worst. Rushing him to local veterinarian Dr. Paul Hollander of the East Hampton Vet Group, they were terrified their beloved pet may have suffered a stroke or some other life-threatening affliction.

After a battery of tests, they found out that their dog was like scores of his human counterparts on the East End: he had contracted Lyme disease.

Lyme disease in dogs, as in humans, is caused by the bite of a tick -- Borrelia burgdorferi is the name of the bacteria that causes the malady.

According to Dr. Hollander, classic symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are lethargy, rising temperatures and loss of appetite. "Sometimes, they're limping, "usually in the foreleg." Lyme disease, he said, causes joint pain in the carpal joints. Dog owners frequently report that their canine companions are "not acting right, may limp in the rear, and not want to do very much." Often, after being tested, such dogs test positive for Lyme disease. "Treatment is pretty straightforward," said Hollander. "Doxicylin is the drug of choice."

Jonathan Turetsky, DVM, an East Hampton veterinarian, said Lyme disease in dogs could have neurological affects. "A lot of this is hard to prove, but it does appear to cause paralysis of the facial muscles, making the side of the dog's face droop and making him unable to blink. We don't know if it's definitely due to Lyme disease but it is a suspected possibility."

A dog's limp, he said, is a manifestation of joint pain and swelling. "Sometimes it's painful in all four feet, and it's as though they're walking on egg shells. They don't know what foot to put their weight on."

More serious effects of Lyme disease, said Turetsky, can include damage to the heart and kidneys.

Should a dog's disease progress to the point where his back legs are so weak he can't walk, Hollander said that is usually a sign that the dog is "further on in the disease. Dogs can be really in bad shape and if left untreated, they can get secondary kidney problems, which they usually die from."

Turetsky said it's important to remember that dogs can be infected and not be symptomatic. Therefore, testing is critical. "We have much better tests available than we had several years ago." One very specific test determines if a dog has the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.

Turetsky said he routinely tests dogs once, if not twice, a year. "My feeling is if we have a positive test, we should treat. Generally, if we retest the test results are much lower, or negative. We can knock it out of the system completely."

Nevertheless, the sight of a dog that appears to be losing control of a leg is frightening to owners. "We thought he had a stroke," said one owner who sought out Hollander. "He was having trouble walking, and was slipping on the stairs." It took about three weeks of treatment -- antibiotics coupled with long walks, before the dog began functioning normally again.

Also, said Turetsky, vaccines are available to help prevent Lyme disease; three different types are available, some of which have been in use for over 15 years. Increased frequency of use, he said, "is probably reducing our incidence of Lyme disease."

The first line of defense against Lyme disease in dogs, said Turetsky, is tick control. There are topical products applied to the skin, he said – consumers should look for an active ingredient called Amitrez for most effective results.

"But some of those sold products sold for dogs can be extremely toxic and even fatal for cats," he said, advising caution.

Ticks themselves do not cause Lyme disease. They feed on white-footed mice – which carry Lyme disease – after their egg has hatched into larvae, and then, when the ticks are in the nymph, or adult stage, they are able to transmit Lyme disease to deer, humans, and dogs.

Another tick control product involves cardboard tubes stuffed with cotton balls soaked in permethrin, a synthetic analog of a natural pesticide.

Also critical is vaccinating dogs and periodic testing. "If they do get Lyme disease and you catch it early, you can start treatment," before it has progressed to deadly kidney disease, Turetsky said.

Dogs, he said, can "certainly symptomatically recover" from Lyme disease.

There is no breed of dog more susceptible, but dogs that spend time in the woods or outside have a greater chance of contracting the disease. However even toy poodles, or indoor dogs that are "held" by their owners sometimes can be bitten.

The veterinarians said it takes 24 hours after a tick bite before Lyme disease begins to spread, so if ticks are found on a dog, they should be removed immediately. And, there are other tick borne diseases other than Lyme that can afflict dogs – and humans.

lfinn@indyeastend.com

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