More than 20 tick species call Michigan home, and 20 percent of these parasites are the blacklegged tick, the species that carries and transmits Lyme disease. Our team at Pierson Pet Hospital wants to provide information about this debilitating disease, to help ensure your pet is protected.

The black-legged tick’s life cycle and their interaction with your pet

Ticks live for two to three years, developing through four life stages. They must ingest blood at each stage before they can move to the next one. Most will die, because they cannot find a host to provide a blood meal.

  • Tick eggs — Female ticks lay several thousand eggs.
  • Tick larvae — Six-legged larvae hatch from eggs and attach to a host. At this stage, black-legged ticks are extremely tiny and difficult to see on your pet. Ticks in this stage do not transmit tick-borne illnesses.
  • Tick nymphs — Engorged larvae detach from a host, and molt into eight-legged, black-legged nymphs. They are about the size of a poppy seed, and difficult to detect. Nymphs, which are most active in the late spring and early summer, are the main cause of Lyme disease infections.
  • Adult ticks — Engorged nymphs detach from a host, and molt into an adult. At this stage, the black-legged tick is flat, and about the size of a sesame seed. 

Black-legged ticks are active year-round, but their peak season is April to September. These parasites can be found anywhere, but they prefer moist, shady areas, such as leaf litter, woodpiles, and tall grass. Ticks find their host by detecting your pet’s breath and body odor, or by sensing body heat, moisture, and vibrations. When searching for a host, ticks hold onto leaves and grass by their third and fourth pair of legs, leaving their first pair of legs outstretched to grasp a passing pet. Ticks must stay attached to your pet for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease.

How Lyme disease affects your pet

When an infected black-legged tick stays attached to your pet for more than 36 hours, they can transmit a bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. Many infected pets do not show any signs, but the most common signs that are seen include lethargy, fever, swollen lymph nodes, joint pain and swelling, and decreased appetite. If left untreated, the infection can seriously damage your pet’s kidneys, nervous system, and heart. Facial paralysis and seizure disorders may occur if your pet’s nervous system is affected.

How Lyme disease is diagnosed and treated in your pet

Blood tests can check for antibodies against specific proteins on the surface of B. burgdorferi. A quick in-house assay can check for one surface protein, although false negatives can occur, because this test cannot detect early infection. A blood sample can be sent for a more complex assay to test for surface proteins at three different stages of the bacteria’s life cycle. This test can indicate whether your pet has been recently or chronically infected.  

If your pet tests positive for Lyme disease and they are showing signs, they will be treated using a specific family of antibiotics for about four weeks. Infection may persist despite antibiotic treatment, and your pet may require a longer course, or a second round of treatment. Signs do not fully resolve in all pets, and additional therapy may be needed to support affected organs, especially the kidneys, heart, or nervous system. If your pet tests positive for Lyme disease and they are not showing signs, our veterinary professionals at Pierson Pet Hospital will discuss the risks and benefits of treatment, and develop an individual plan for your pet.

If your pet was acutely infected, they can be retested six to eight weeks after treatment, to ensure their antibody levels are decreasing. If your pet was chronically infected, they can be retested three months after treatment.

How to prevent Lyme disease in your pet

Since Lyme disease is so debilitating, and signs can persist after treatment, prevention is the best method to protect your pet.

  • Tick control products — Provide year-round flea and tick preventives for your pet. Our team at Pierson Pet Hospital can help you determine the best product for your pet.
  • Grooming — Regularly groom your pet, watching for ticks. If your pet has been outside, check them carefully for ticks. These parasites can attach anywhere, but they prefer areas such as your pet’s ears, under their tail, their groin, armpit, and under their collar.
  • Removal — If you find a tick on your pet, use tweezers to grasp the head, and pull the tick off your pet. 
  • Vaccination — A Lyme vaccine is available for high-risk dogs. They will need boosters every year.

Providing year-round flea and tick prevention is an easy way to prevent your pet from being affected by Lyme disease’s harmful effects. If you are concerned your pet has Lyme disease, or if you would like to discuss preventive methods, do not hesitate to contact our team at Pierson Pet Hospital to schedule an appointment.