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Every dog owner acknowledges that with dogs come ticks. Other than being unpleasant, they can also spread deadly infections to your dog and yourself. The most common tick-borne infections are not transmitted from dogs to humans. However, you can also get infected by a tick in the process of handling the tick.

Tick-borne infections are caused by parasites that use ticks as a vector - they enter the dog's bloodstream after the tick bites the dog. In most cases, there will be an incubation time lasting at least a week. Sometimes the parasite won’t cause any damage to the dog and cause no infection. However, the parasite can also attack blood cells and trigger issues such as anaemia, clotting disorders and can spread to various organs such as the liver, kidneys and spleen as well.

Commonly with tick-borne infections, there is:

It is important to catch a tick infection early since complications can occur if there is a delay. The trouble with diagnosis is that symptoms are vague and widespread and can indicate other issues as well. Further, blood tests are often inconclusive because parasites don’t show up either because they are in an early stage of their life cycle or because of their puny size. Sophisticated diagnostic methods such as specialized antibody testing, PCR test is required to deduce which parasite(s) is actually responsible. 

Precise diagnosis is in fact not usually made before treatment is started since this can take time. Aggressive, broad-based antibiotics are used to combat the disease since they work on most sorts of parasites. The most commonly used one in India is doxycycline. Your dog will be on the antibiotic for up to a month and then tested again: if the test comes back positive for the infection, your veterinary doctor may advise continuing with the antibiotic.

In more serious cases, supplementary treatment such as blood transfusions and anti-inflammatory drugs may also be required. Infections that are caught earlier have a far better prognosis. 

Also, if you have other dogs in your house, it is a good idea to get them proactively tested as well since they are likely to have encountered the same tick(s) and some of the infections can spread from dog to dog as well. You may also need to be on antibiotics if your vet or doctor considers it necessary.

According to "A survey of canine tick-borne diseases in India", there are at least six types of parasites that use ticks as a vector in India. These are:

  • Rickettsia conorii
  • Babesia parasites
  • Ehrlichia canis
  • Anaplasma parasites
  • Hepatozoon canis
  • Borrelia burgdorferi

Some of the most common ticks that carry these parasites in India are the brown dog tick and Ixodes or deer tick.

Read more: What to do if your dog has fleas

  1. Spotted fever in dogs or Indian tick typhus
  2. Babesiosis or Babesia infection in dogs
  3. Ehrlichiosis tick infection in dogs
  4. Lyme disease
  5. Canine anaplasmosis: symptoms, causes, treatment
  6. How to clean ticks from home
  7. How to remove ticks dogs
  8. How to keep dogs tick free

Spotted fevers are tick-borne infections caused by Rickettsia bacteria - specifically, Rickettsia rickettsii, Rickettsia felis and Rickettsia conorii affect dogs. One of the main symptoms of this condition is red or purplish spots where the tick has bitten the dog, hence the name.

While R rickettsii is largely responsible for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which is limited to North, South and Central America, R. conorii is the parasite that causes Indian tick typhus in dogs. R. felis is mostly found in Northern Australia.

The parasite Rickettsia uses ticks as intermediary species to infect canines. One of the most common vectors for tick fever in India is the brown dog tick, also known as Rhipicephalus sanguineus, kennel tick or pantropical dog tick. The tick transmits the parasites to the dog via its bite.

Rickettsia is a bacteria that needs the cells of the blood vessels to live, so inflammation in the vessels occurs. This means that various organs are affected and the disease is serious if it progresses. Unfortunately, up to 10% of cases turn fatal. It is important to act promptly; your vet will not await blood test results before starting antibiotic treatment if they suspect spotted fever.

Dogs cannot transmit the infection to humans. However, humans can also get the disease if they’re bitten by a tick, or during tick removal from a pet if the tick saliva or faeces enter from a break in the skin, abrasions or the oral route.

Read more: Rickettsial infection in humans

Spotted fever symptoms in dogs

It can be tricky to deduce if a dog has spotted fever because the symptoms vary in severity and type. They include:

  • Fever: The normal temperature of your dog is between 101 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If your dog’s temperature is consistently higher than this, you should visit the vet.
  • Lethargy and loss of appetite (inappetence)
  • Cough 
  • Difficulty walking or lameness
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Petechial haemorrhage: These are tiny red/purplish spots that occur all over the body. The condition is called spotted fever because of this.

In more severe cases, there are neurological symptoms as well. These include an altered mental state, balance and coordination problems and increased spinal sensitivity.

Diagnosis of spotted fever in dogs

You will need to give your vet a detailed medical history of your dog, including deworming and vaccine details. Try your best to recall when symptoms first started and explain how your dog’s behaviour has changed (report if they have become inactive or refuse to eat, for example). This will help your vet figure out the extent of the infection and if any specific organs are affected.

A range of blood tests will help to make the diagnosis. These include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): A blood test, CBC gives information on antibody production. An increase will indicate infection.
  • Platelet count and clotting test: Tests assessing the coagulation (clotting) levels of the blood and platelets will also be conducted.
  • Titer test: To confirm the diagnosis, another blood test may be prescribed two weeks later, to check for the concentration of antibodies in the blood to assess the presence and levels of the parasite.

However, your vet is unlikely to wait for the latter and begin treatment anyway. The information from the titer will be used later to assist in tick management in the household and prophylactically treating any other pets you may have.

Spotted tick fever treatment in dogs

Antibiotics are the first line of treatment for tick fever. Doxycycline is the most commonly used one and your pet will likely be on it for up to a month. After this period, blood tests will be conducted again to check effectiveness. There may also be supplementary treatments such as blood transfusions if there are complications. 

Usually, dogs will respond well to timely treatment. In cases where there are no complications, the dog will develop lifelong immunity as well.

However, the situation can turn grim if there are complications. Kidney disease, liver problems and neurological problems may persist as the after-effects of infection.

Babesia are protozoans (single-celled organisms) that can cause deadly infections in canines. Many subtypes of Babesia parasites like Babesia canis vogeli and Babesia gibsoni are present in the Indian subcontinent and Babesiosis is one of the more common forms of tick-borne infections.

Babesia is transmitted through tick bites, bites from infected dogs and from mothers to pups or during blood transfusions. The disease is especially prevalent and potent in Greyhounds and Pitbull Terriers. 

The parasite is in the organism (dogs, in this case) for around two weeks before symptoms appear. Babesia attacks and replicates in the red blood cells causing various forms of anaemia and widespread systemic damage if not treated quickly. Thrombocytopenia or low platelet count is another common symptom of Babesia infection in India.

Antibiotic treatment is prescribed that is taken for up to a month and blood tests are conducted to check effectiveness. If you have other dogs in your household, they should be tested as well, as the same tick or ticks can feed on both animals.

Babesiosis symptoms in dogs

Since the parasite attacks red blood cells, the body will mount an immune attack on red blood cells to combat the infestation. Unfortunately, healthy red blood cells are also killed in the process, leading to immune-mediated hemolytic anaemia (IMHA) in which the red blood count falls strongly. Symptoms occur largely as a result of:

  • High fever, lethargy and weakness 
  • Jaundice in dogs, a condition in which there is an excess of bilirubin (a byproduct of the breakdown of haemoglobin in red blood cells) in the body
  • Dark-coloured urine and stool
  • Bloated abdomen 

The high levels of inflammation can also lead to a decrease in blood platelets and coagulation issues (clotting problems). Further neurological symptoms such as altered states, issues with balance and seizures can also occur. 

Diagnosis of Babesiosis

Certain species of Babesia will show up on blood smears. A complete blood profile, antibody testing (such as Immunofluorescent antibody [IFA]) and PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) may be conducted as well, depending on the infrastructure available at your vet’s clinic. Often blood tests will be inconclusive, so PCR remains the strongest diagnostic tool. 

For thoroughness, the vet will also conduct a complete physical exam and ask for your dog’s medical history. 

If you are living in an area known to have Babesia, or your dog is prone to tick infection, your vet may take it as sufficient evidence that a form of tick fever is at play and initiate treatment.

Treatment of Babesia infection in dogs

The most commonly used drug for the treatment of Babesiosis in dogs is imidocarb. A shot of imidocarb is usually sufficient for certain strains of the parasite, whereas other strains will require another shot in the space of a couple of weeks. Note that the injection is painful and can cause side-effects such as drooling in dogs, facial swelling, agitation, tremors and elevated heart rate. 

Supplementary antibiotics such as azithromycin, quinine, may also be used. Since Babeosis can occur in humans as well, the drug used for treatment, clindamycin, is also used sometimes. Research suggests that other drugs may be more effective and cause fewer side effects, but these treatments are on the horizon. Your vet will suggest an antibiotic based on your dog’s current status as each drug has its own contraindications and side effects. 

Supplementary therapy such as blood transfusions will be required in some cases. If cases resolve without further complications, prognosis is good. However, in more severe cases, prognosis is guarded.

Similar to spotted fever, Ehrlichiosis is caused by the brown dog tick and the parasitic species belongs to the Rickettsial family. E. canis is the most common parasite that causes the infection - German Shepherd dogs are more prone to this condition than other popular dog breeds in India. The infection evolves through different stages: acute, subclinical and chronic in which molecular and symptomatic behaviour changes.

E. canis can be in the dog’s bloodstream for up to two weeks before symptoms initially appear. It nests in blood cells and will cause clotting issues and anaemia. It can also be found in the spleen, liver, bone marrow and lymph nodes.

As with other kinds of tick-borne infections, diagnosis depends on the symptoms displayed by the dog as well as blood work, antibody testing, urinalysis and PCR testing. The issue with tick-borne infections, though, is that they show roughly similar, or vague, symptoms and it is difficult to deduce which kind of parasite is at play. Further, it is possible that your dog will have more than one kind of infection since ticks carry several types of parasites in them. Treatment is, therefore, done with broad-based antibiotics. In any case, vets don’t usually have time to confirm their suspicions since the sooner a defence is mounted against the parasite, the better the prognosis.

Symptoms of ehrlichiosis tick infection in dogs

The disease evolves through different stages:

Acute phase

In the acute phase, the parasites will begin to make their presence felt by attaching to white blood cells and triggering a drop in platelets. There will be:

  • Fever in dogs
  • Lethargy in dogs
  • Loss of appetite or inappetence in dogs
  • There may also be swelling in the lymph nodes and spleen.

It’s important to remember that if the disease is caught at this stage, the prognosis is good and the dog won’t move to the next phase.

Subclinical phase

The subclinical phase occurs after two to four weeks of the acute phase. The outward symptoms diminish and the dog appears to operate largely normally. The infection has actually settled in the spleen and will remain there for months or years. This phase of the disease is dangerous because the owner will believe that the crisis has passed and not take the opinion of the vet. The only signs of disease at this point will be:

  • Slightly abnormal blood reports suggesting an increase in white blood cells.
  • Some dogs will stay in this stage indefinitely and may not face too many issues, however, some will graduate to the chronic stage.

Chronic stage

The chronic stage has a poorer prognosis and symptoms will reappear. A series of problems will occur, such as:

  • Anaemia in dogs
  • Chronic bleeding in dogs
  • Difficulty with coordination, walking and lameness
  • Eye problems in dogs such as uveitis
  • Swollen limbs
  • Neurological issues such as seizures and altered consciousness

The bone marrow can also be implicated, leading to disastrous outcomes. For dogs in the chronic stage, the mortality rate is higher as other complications arise and the dog’s immune system takes a beating.

Ehrlichiosis in dogs diagnosis

As with other tick-borne infections, blood tests, and urinalysis are conducted to study changes in blood cell count. The medical history of the dog is also helpful in providing hints. Again, if PCR and antibody testing facilities are available at your local veterinarian’s office, these will be used to confirm suspicions. 

Rarely, evidence of the microorganism will be visible under a microscope.

Treatment of ehrlichiosis in dogs

The antibiotic doxycycline is usually prescribed to dogs with E. canis infection. For those dogs in the earlier stages, the response is usually good and quite rapid. The drug regimen will last around 28 days after which a diagnostic test will be conducted. If the test suggests that the infection isn't entirely gone, then the regimen will continue.

For more serious cases, supplementary treatment such as blood transfusions will also be required.

Lyme disease in dogs, also known as Lyme borreliosis, is one of the most well known tick-borne diseases in dogs. Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted by deer ticks, the disease can lead to lameness, neurological issues and painful joints. The infection can be particularly harmful to the kidneys and some dogs will experience total kidney failure along with neurological signs.

Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs

As mentioned above, the common symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • Stiffness in the joints: Your dog may develop a limp in one leg that will last a couple of days and disappear. It will then reappear in the same or different leg.
  • Neurological and cardiac abnormalities such as altered state, depression, seizures in dogs and increased heart rate and shortness of breath.
  • Fever and bruising in dogs.
  • Inappetence or loss of appetite
  • Swelling close to the site of the bite 
  • Sensitivity to touch

Diagnosis of Lyme Disease

While the procedure for diagnosing tick-borne infections remains largely the same, the joint issues presented in Lyme disease mean that vets usually conduct other tests to eliminate differential diagnoses. Underlying causes of arthritis in dogs can be trauma and degenerative joint disease, for example. 

The vet will look at the physical symptoms of the dog as well as the medical history you provide. Blood tests, antibody tests, and a urinalysis will also be used to confirm the diagnosis.

Lyme disease treatment in dogs

Doxycycline, which is used for most types of tick-borne infections in dogs, is used in treatment. The advantage of doxycycline is that if treatment is provided in time, the infected dogs usually respond rapidly and feel better within 24 hours. Further, the joint pains and aches of the disease are also alleviated by the drug. Again, your dog will be on the drug for up to a month following which there will be a diagnostic test. If that turns out negative, the dog is considered cured.

However, Lyme disease is insidious and can return even after tests turn negative. This form is usually more aggressive and kidney and systemic organ damage can occur.

Canine anaplasmosis is caused by A. platys and A. phagocytophilum, which may be transmitted by the deer tick. A dog may have Anaplasmosis infection for one or two weeks, before showing symptoms such as:

  • Fever in dogs
  • Lethargy in dogs
  • Weight loss in dogs
  • Pale mucous membranes
  • Splotchy red or purplish skin (petechiae)
  • Nasal discharge
  • Enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenomegaly)
  • Joint stiffness in dogs
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea in dogs
  •  Seizures (only in extreme cases)

Researchers have argued that the detection of A. platys through blood smear and clinical examination of the dog is particularly hard as the symptoms are very similar to E. canis infection in dogs.

Treatment includes a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics for a month. The prognosis, or the chances of recovery in the dog, is usually good if the tick infection is detected and treated in the early stages.

Keeping your house and dog tick-free is the best attack against tick-borne infections. To begin with, there are some steps you can take to lower the number of ticks in your house:

  • Keep the grass in your yard mowed and well maintained. Ticks can slide from tall grass and weeds onto your dog.
  • Vacuum-clean the areas where your dog spends most of his or her time. Also be extra careful about spaces that don’t get cleaned often such as the bottom of beds, spaces behind furniture, etc.
  • If you notice your dog has ticks, use a safe but effective insecticide and spray it in the house and your lawn.

Read more: Insect bites in dogs

It is important to keep a check on your dog by running your hand through his/her fur and checking for ticks. Anything that feels hard against the grain of the hair needs to be examined as it may be a tick. 

To remove a tick, grasp tightly as close as you can to the bite site and pull it out. Make sure that the head comes as well. You could use tweezers if you don’t want to do this by hand. 

Never handle a tick without gloves and certainly don’t squash them between your fingers as their contents can carry disease. Drop the tick in rubbing alcohol to kill it and then flush it down the toilet.

Next, here are some steps to keep your pet tick-free:

  • If your dog is prone to ticks or is at high risk of infection, a tick collar may be used for a limited period. If you do decide to use a tick collar, consider the following
    • Use this time to clean out your home.
    • If you have more than one pet at home, and one of them gets a tick infection, use a collar for all of them while also treating the one who has tick fever with antibiotics.
    • Make sure the collar doesn’t get wet as this lowers its effectiveness.
    • Also, the collar is more effective in the area around the neck and should be in contact with the fur.
    • Cut off the excess part of the collar so your dog can't chew on it.
  • Tick sprays, shampoos, powders and topical treatments are all effective in removing ticks from your dog’s coat but it can be a time-consuming process to apply them. Make sure your dog is not allergic to any product and ask your vet what the best products are.

Read more: Dog allergies: types, symptoms, causes, prevention, diagnosis, treatment

References

  1. VCA. [Internet]. VCA Inc.; Ehrlichiosis in Dogs
  2. Pet MD. [Internet]. Pet MD, LLC; Signs and Symptoms of Ehrlichiosis in Dogs
  3. MSD Veterinary Manual [Internet]. Merck & Co., Inc.; Ehrlichiosis and Related Infections
  4. Veterinary Partner. [Internet]. Veterinary Information Network. Davis, California; Ehrlichia Infection in Dogs
  5. Pet MD. [Internet]. Pet MD, LLC; Parasite Infection (Babesiosis) in Dogs
  6. VCA. [Internet]. VCA Inc.; Babesiosis in Dogs
  7. Veterinary Partner. [Internet]. Veterinary Information Network. Davis, California; Babesia Infection in Dogs
  8. Pet MD. [Internet]. Pet MD, LLC; Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs
  9. MSD Veterinary Manual [Internet]. Merck & Co., Inc.; Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (Tick Fever) in Dogs
  10. MSD Veterinary Manual [Internet]. Merck & Co., Inc.; Ticks of dogs
  11. Pet MD. [Internet]. Pet MD, LLC; Lyme Disease in Dogs
  12. American Kennel Club. [Internet]. AKC Inc. New York.;Lyme Disease in Dogs: Symptoms, Tests, Treatment, and Prevention
  13. Pet MD. [Internet]. Pet MD, LLC; The 10 Best Ways to Get Rid of & Prevent Ticks on Dogs
  14. Veterinary Partner. [Internet]. Veterinary Information Network. Davis, California; Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs
  15. Starkey L.A. et al. Development of antibodies to and PCR detection of Ehrlichia spp. in dogs following natural tick exposure. Veterinary Microbiology, 10 October 2014;173(3-4): 379-84.
  16. Piccione J., Levine G.J., Duff C.A., Kuhlman G.M., Scott K.D. and Esteve-Gassent M.D. Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever in Dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 16 June 2016; 30(4): 1222-1228. PMID: 27353196
  17. Animal Health Diagnostic Center - Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York [Internet]. Anaplasma, Ehrlichia and Babesia Testing.
  18. Rathi, Narendra and Rathi, Akanksha. Rickettsial Infections: Indian Perspective.. Indian pediatrics, 2010; 47: 157-64.
  19. Jain K.J., Lakshmanan B., Syamala K., Praveena J.E. and Aravindakshan T. High prevalence of small Babesia species in canines of Kerala, South India. Veterinary World, 10 November 2017; 10(11): 1319–1323. PMID: 29263592.
  20. Abd Rani P.A.M., Irwin P.J., Coleman G.T. et al. A survey of canine tick-borne diseases in India. Parasites Vectors, July 2011; 4. Article No. 141.
  21. Dhivya Bhoopathy, Bhaskaran Ravi Latha and Azhahianambi Palavesam. Molecular detection of Anaplasma platys infection in dogs in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India- A pioneer report. Journal of Entomology and Zoology Studies, 2017; 5(3): 1608-1610.
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