Ticks and tick-borne diseases

Ah… Pennsylvania. A state with such diverse terrain it includes farmland, mountain ranges, and busy city streets. It was one of the 13 original colonies and now one of the leading states for ticks and tick borne diseases.


Ticks are small arachnids that survive by feeding on the blood of a host animal. Their hosts can be humans, dogs, cats, other mammals, birds and even reptiles and amphibians. Ticks are mostly active from April to October but can still be active when ground temperatures are around 45° Fahrenheit. Ticks can survive anywhere from 200 days to 2 years in-between feedings! They have four life cycles: egg, larva, nymph and adult. Female ticks will engorge themselves with blood from their host, and then fall off to find a place to lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, all remaining life cycles will feed on blood.


There are four common species of ticks that call PA home: Deer tick, American Dog tick, Lone Star tick, and Brown Dog tick. The sizes of these ticks vary slightly between species, gender and life cycle. Each tick species can carry different diseases that can make you and your pets sick.


Deer tick – Also known as a blacklegged tick. Adults are brownish in color but may change to rust or brown-red after feeding. Female deer ticks can lay up to 3,000 eggs at one time. The Deer tick can transmit Lyme disease and Anaplasmosis.


American Dog tick – Also known as a wood tick. Male wood ticks are identifiable by mottled gray coloration along their backs. Females are almost completely gray behind their heads. Female American Dog ticks can lay over 4,000 eggs. American Dog ticks can transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.


Lone Star tick – Adult females have an easily noticed white dot on the center of her back. Males have white lines or streaks around the edges of the top of their body, but these markings are not as noticeable as the markings on the female. Adult females can lay over 5,000 eggs. Lone Star ticks transmit Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.


Brown Dog tick – Adult brown dog ticks are reddish-brown in color and lack any noticeable markings that are found on many other tick species. Female Brown Dog ticks can lay between 1,000 to 3,000 eggs. Brown Dog ticks transmit Lyme disease, Ehrlicliosis, Babesiosis, and Hepatozoonosis.


Now that you know the common ticks found in PA and the diseases they carry. Here is a list of the diseases and brief description of the disease, symptoms and treatment for your dog.


Lyme disease –  Just like in humans, Lyme disease in dogs is a painful, multi-system disorder caused by a bacteria. Lyme disease is a recurring condition that can strike again and again once it is contracted. It can take up until 2-3 months after contracting the disease to show any signs, however over 90% of dogs don’t show symptoms of Lyme disease. Some symptoms include: inconsistent limping, swelling in the lymph nodes, fever, loss of appetite and lethargy. In 2015, 1 out of 7 dogs tested positive for Lyme disease in Franklin and Cumberland County.


Treatment of Lyme disease is typically a 30-day course of Doxycycline (an antibiotic) and a few days of a pain reliever.


Anaplasmosis – Anaplasmosis is a bacterial infection of the blood. It has an incubation time of 1 to 2 weeks. Anaplasmosis causes lameness, joint pain, fever, lethargy, and no appetite. Most infected dogs will have symptoms for 1 to 7 days; however, some will have no or only minor symptoms. In 2015, 1 out of 60 dogs tested positive for Anaplasmosis in Franklin and Cumberland County.


Treatment includes the antibiotic Doxycycline, pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs. Many infected dogs are treated with antibiotics for 30 days.


 Ehrlicliosis – Ehrlichia is a type of bacteria that infects the white blood cells of their hosts. There are three phases of the illness (acute, subclinical and chronic). The acute phase occurs 1-3 weeks after being bitten. This is generally a mild phase. This can be where the dog may not be acting quite like themselves. In the subclinical phase, the dog appears to be normal and can stay in this phase for months to several years. In the chronic phase, up to 60% of dogs will have abnormal bleeding due to reduced platelets numbers. In 2015, 1 out of 110 dogs tested positive for Ehrlicliosis in Franklin and Cumberland County.


Treatment usually includes an antibiotic and occasionally a corticosteroid.


Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever – Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is an intracellular (inside cells) parasite. Clinical signs will show up 2-14 days after the bite occurred. Common symptoms include: fever, lethargy, inappetence, pain, eye/nose discharge (that can include nosebleed), cough, enlarged lymph nodes, lameness, skin necrosis/sloughing, and hemorrhages. Up to 1/3 of infected dogs will have central nervous system issues. Most cases occur in the southern Atlantic states (Delaware, and from Maryland to Florida) and obviously areas around the Rocky Mountains. If your dog travels to any of these areas, they can be at risk for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.


Antibiotics are used to treat Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Response to the antibiotics is usually seen within 24-48 hours but advanced cases may not respond at all to treatment.


Babesiosis –  Babesiosis is caused by a Babesia organism that causes red blood cell destruction. There are over 100 species of Babesia in the world but only a few in the US. Besides from being transmitted from ticks, some species of Babesia can be transmitted from dog bites from infected dogs and from mother to her unborn puppies. Relapses can occur with stress.


Treatment for Babesiosis depends on which species of Babesia the dog is infected with. Diagnostic testing is required to identify the species of Babesia before treatment can start.


Hepatozoonosis – Hepatozoonosis is a debilitating disease that is often fatal. Symptoms include periodic or persistent fever, weakness, muscle atrophy, lethargy and generalized pain. Hepatozoonosis is usually found in the southern United States (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas) but if you travel with your dog to these states, they can also be at risk for the disease. Also, if a dog was in an area where the infected ticks were, they can transport the tick and disease back to the area you live.


There is no effective treatment that will eliminate the disease from infected dogs. But there are treatments that can increase survival time, improve the quality of life, and decrease the number and severity of clinical relapses.


Your dog can actually be infected with more than one of these diseases at the same time.


All of the above diseases except for Hepatozoonosis can affect people as well. If your dog is diagnosed with any tick borne diseases, although you can’t directly get the disease from your dog, it does indicate there are infected ticks in the environment and you could become infected as well. Strict tick control measures should be taken.


To help protect your dog from tick borne disease:

  • Keep your dog on a flea/tick preventative year-round.
  • Vaccinate against Lyme disease. (Think of the Lyme vaccine like a flu shot for you – the vaccine won’t stop it entirely but it will lessen the severity of the disease.)
  • Brush your dog and conduct thorough tick checks after your dog has been outside.
  • Remove the tick promptly and properly if you discover a tick.

With a little precaution and attention when you’re outdoors with your dog, you can help protect them against painful and expensive diseases.


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