Lyme is Spreading in America

Lyme disease is spreading in America. In fact, veterinary parasitologists refer to Lyme and other tick diseases as an epidemic.

FACT: In most places where Lyme has been, it’s more abundant.

FACT: In geographic regions with minimal Lyme; they are now seeing the illness far more often as it continues to spread. And it gets worse with each passing year.

We know the above facts greatly because the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) tracks dogs with Lyme. What happens in dogs matters as dogs are a sentinel for Lyme (and many other tick-borne illnesses) in people.

Oddly, there’s controversy regarding tick disease in people. And it seems clear tick disease is under diagnosed and misdiagnosed in people – so some wonder if the Centers for Disease Control data isn’t as precise as CAPC.

Still, there plenty of experts paying attention as Dr. Richard Ostfield, disease ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in the March issue of New Scientist that he expects an “unprecedented outbreak of Lyme disease this year.”

A few years back the CDC essentially said “oops, we had it wrong.” And overnight upped their figures from 30,000 to 300,000 people infected with Lyme

As far back 2013, the publication Entomology Today warned, “We know that routine surveillance only gives us part of the picture, and that the true number of illnesses is much greater,” said Paul Mead, M.D., M.P.H, chief of epidemiology and surveillance for CDC’s Lyme disease program.

And Lyme isn’t only a U.S. concern. In Europe, confirmed cases have been steadily rising for 30 years – today, the World Health Organization estimates that 65,000 people get Lyme disease each year in the region. In the UK, over 2,000 to 3,000 cases of Lyme are diagnosed now, up tenfold from 2001.

In the U.S. there’s are many presumed reasons for the continued rise of Lyme disease. At the end of the day, it’s a pretty simple formula – more ticks mean more tick disease.

Clearly, warmer winters and wet springs offer favorable conditions for ticks. But also the unsuspected real Lyme culprit is the white-footed mouse. According to one report, this seemingly cute and all too common rodent, infects about 95 percent of ticks with Lyme that feed on it.

In part due to favorable weather conditions, the population of white-footed mice is booming. Also, those same weather conditions provide more food, particularly the acorns these mice love to devour.

Not only are the mice more well fed than ever, they have fewer natural predators as the owl, fox and coyotes that eat them are declining in number.

Unlike raccoon or opossum that may deal with a few ticks—and will even eat some off — the mice joyfully live with up to 50 or 100 ticks on them.

And the tick species most commonly associated with Lyme, the deer tick often called the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) continue through their life cycles, they feed on larger animals, from dogs to people to wild turkey, to various other animals to most famously white-tailed deer. And there are more white-tailed deer in America today than ever before. Weather plays a role, and again fewer predators, including wolves, bobcat and coyote.

Fool around with Mother Nature – and she gives us more tick disease.

Also, it’s a mistake to believe that tick disease only occurs in the woods. Lyme has been identified with surprising frequency in places like New York and Chicago. For years, dogs have been transporting ticks from upstate or mid-state New York back to Central Park in Manhattan or from summer cottages in Wisconsin or Michigan into Lincoln Park in Chicago. In these parks, the ticks have no shortage of blood meals, making “withdrawals” from raccoons, squirrels, opossum, and even city rats – not to mention unprotected people and unprotected dogs.

In any case, for all these reasons – tick disease is booming, and depending on a variety of factors could even explode this summer.

Interestingly, the news is actually better for dogs than it is for people – starting with testing. Symptoms of tick disease in dogs include lameness (usually on alternating legs), swollen joints, lethargy, mild fever and appetite suppression. Sometimes these symptoms – which typically come and go – may be mistaken (even by veterinary professions) for other problems without appropriate testing. And without testing tick disease often goes undetected. For example, a dog that’s feeling “yucky” and running a mild fever may not be noticed by family members, as dogs have no way to tell us, and rarely call in sick to work.

So, testing is necessary. The SNAP 4Dx Plus Test identifies antibodies that are produced only as a result of a Borrelia burgdorferi infection (Lyme). The same test, also detects antibodies to Ehrlichia canis or Ehrlichia ewingii (both are tick diseases) and indicates exposure and the transmission of infectious agents. (Additional testing is recommended in these patients to determine if there is an active infection.) The very same SNAP test serves to identify exposure to another pair of nasty tick diseases: Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Anaplasma platys. And the very same test is actually most often known by pet owners as “the heartworm test” because this four-way plus test also detects this mosquito transmitted illness.
The SNAP 4DX Plus Test should be standard of care in most of parts of the country. If the test shows disease, now the veterinarian can respond. A veterinarian can’t respond to something that he or she doesn’t know about.

Great if there is no disease – the next step is continued protection. For starters checking the pets daily for ticks. However, with all that dog hair, this isn’t always an efficient means of protection.

There are many veterinary products which work very well, spot-on products and chewables. However, not all tick preventive products are the same. You do want veterinary input. Taking the chance on over-the-counter product with buzz words like “all natural” is ill-advised, and even more so are “homemade remedies.”

Where Lyme is endemic or a serious threat – there is a Lyme vaccine for dogs.

Sadly, this extent of protection is not available for people. Absolutely, when hiking in woods where ticks are known, long pants and even clothing laced with insecticide is suggested. And people should check themselves, and especially inspect children for ticks However, ticks can be tiny and difficult to spot. None of this is nearly as efficient as the protection we can provide for dogs, not to mention that the Lyme vaccine for people is several years down the road.

Be grateful that in veterinary medicine, there’s nothing controversial about tick disease or questioning its existence. And that precise testing is available. And prevention is possible.

Learn more at

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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is


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