Creature Thoughts August 2021: The Tiny Enemy

Ixodes scapularis, image courtesy of lymedisease.org

Borellia burgdorferi. I’m guessing a few you will immediately know what that is. It’s, due to the fact that we think we have finally pinned down the reason I’ve been so ill all year, hiding in the tissues of my body right now, as it is in the bodies of millions of other people around the world. It’s not only making humans ill, but dogs, horses, and cattle as well. The jury is still out on other infected species. This is the primary spirochete bacteria carried and transmitted predominantly by Ixodes scapularis in the US, and Ixodes ricinus in Europe and Asia—better known, respectively as the Black-legged or Deer Tick and the Castor Bean Tick.

Lyme Disease.

There is growing evidence that this bacteria can be found in other ticks as well. For example, it’s been found in the Lone-star Tick. This tick is more common to the southern United States but has been moving northward and has now been found in southern New York. Not only that, but this is not the only pathogen that ticks carry. A growing collection of tick-borne diseases are spreading, as the mean temperatures rise with climate change, northward and outward into territories where they were not previously found. Erlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Bartonella, Babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever are the most well known. All of these have been identified in my home state of New York, as well as all over the country.

Different ticks spread different diseases. Some individual ticks can carry as many as three or four at a time. There is even research showing that ticks that carry diseases are stronger, live longer, and are more prolific than those which do not. The tick and the bacteria they carry appear to have a symbiotic relationship which allows both of them to thrive.

They thrive, that is, to the detriment of their victims.

When I was a child, growing up in northern Westchester County, we would romp through the woods, lay in the high grasses, roll down the hills, and wander through the brush all day long, and never see a single tick. Today, you can barely walk from the house to the mailbox without finding one or two clinging to your clothing. Searching the dogs after every walk has become a routine that everyone performs by habit now. It’s a routine, of course, which is pretty much fruitless, as a Black-legged Tick nymph is so small it’s almost impossible to spot on a dog … or a human.

I didn’t see the one that got me. I did, however, see the spreading bulls-eye rash, feel the awful fever, the painful whole body aches, the wracking chills, the fierce headache. I was treated, as most are these days, with doxycycline for 21 days. The majority of people clear the disease with that treatment … or at least the antibiotics knock down the bacteria numbers to a level which a healthy immune system can then handle. The immune system either clears the pathogen completely (according to some medical professionals) or (according to others) keeps the buggers at bay.

Then, in January, I had another round of pyoderma gangrenosum (an auto-immune disorder that first made itself known in 2008), and was treated with high doses of prednisone. That suppressed my immune system. As a result, the “buggers” were set free to replicate, and they went on the attack.

Tick-borne diseases are not fun. When they become chronic, they can rob a person of their normal existence. They can also cause pain and debilitation in our dogs, who (like their humans) are being infected in ever growing numbers. My own little Kira tested positive for Anaplasmosis, and was put on doxycycline for 30 days. Thankfully we caught it before she was symptomatic, and she appears to be fine.

There are many products on the market these days that help protect against ticks. Some are chemicals, which we all know can have side effects or cause reactions in some dogs, but many other dogs are perfectly fine with them. There are things like the Seresto collar (which recently has been indicated in a growing number of bad reactions and deaths). There are also natural products, some of which are dubious, but others are scientifically studied and shown to produce very good results, such as the Wondercide line. There are natural supplements that can help boost the dog’s immune system, some of which claim to repel ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes.

With the help of your veterinarian, only you can decide what is best to protect your dogs from ticks. These tiny pathogen-carrying creatures are increasing in numbers, spreading into areas where they didn’t roam fifteen years ago. They have evolved into incredibly efficient vectors for a myriad of diseases that can make your pups—and you—very ill.

Protect yourself, as well. We all now know the routine. If spending time in the out of doors, wear long sleeves and pants, tuck your pantlegs into your socks, wear solid shoes, and use a tick repellent. Once indoors, check yourself (and the dogs) as thoroughly as possible. Throw clothing into a hot dryer (high heat does kill ticks).

If you find an embedded tick, or begin to have symptoms that suggest a tick-born disease (such as thinking you have the flu when it’s not flu season and you haven’t been in contact with anyone who is ill), see your doctor. Not all people who get lyme get the rash (fewer than half, in fact). Early treatment with at least 21 days of antibiotics (preferably longer if you can talk your doctor into it) can make the majority of people well again. The key to that, though, is “early.”

These diseases are no fun. There have been studies which have shown that those suffering with long-term tick-borne diseases have less qualify of life than those with most other chronic illnesses, including heart disease and diabetes. Worse yet, once entrenched, there is no cure. The symptoms can be controlled, the spirochete numbers reduced, and quality of life can be regained, but the disease is always lurking in wait for the immune system to be compromised again so it can take over.

Stay vigilant … for your pups and for you as well. This is a war, and the enemy is almost invisible.

References: