Your dog acts perfectly healthy, but tests positive for a tick-borne illness. What do you do next?
To Bruce Silverman, V.M.D., of the Village West Veterinary Clinic in Chicago, it wasn’t a rare discovery: three dogs in the same family tested positive for Lyme disease.
"The deer and turkey populations exploded in this area, causing a high prevalence of ticks. We’re seeing a lot of tick-borne disease exposure in symptom-free dogs,” Silverman says.
The three dogs, two Alaskan Malamutes and a Husky mix, were healthy and free of clinical signs. Their positive test result surfaced during routine screening.
"[The owner] was very educated, in the dog business, and was worried,” Silverman says. After discussing the situation, they opted to treat the dogs with antibiotics. All three remain healthy today.
Veterinarians across the country frequently see symptom-free dogs testing positive for exposure to tick-borne disease. The dilemma is what to do next.
Ticks, germs and your dog
Once a tick attaches to your dog, it can transmit disease-causing germs. Lyme disease is the most common, but it varies by region. Diseases becoming more prevalent across the nation include ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and babesiosis. A dog can be exposed to more than one disease at a time.
Sometimes, exposure leads to illness. More commonly, the dog never falls ill, or it becomes sick much later, perhaps after its resistance drops due to illness or other factors.
"Lyme disease in dogs is not like in people. With people, the majority of those exposed will get sick. With dogs that are exposed, most do not get sick,” says Meryl P. Littman, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.
Without clinical signs, a dog’s exposure is discovered from a routine test, often administered during annual exams to screen for exposure to heartworm disease, ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease and anaplasmosis.
When the test yields positive, the dilemma begins: Do you treat the dog based on that result, do you undergo more detailed testing or do you monitor your dog for clinical signs of disease?
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