Spring fever has people and dogs itching to get outside. Thawing mountain trails and meadows newly green beckon your dog to romp and explore, but new research on ticks and Lyme disease will have most owners tightening the leashes. Before you kill all the outdoor fun, however, let’s see what the facts are about Lyme disease in dogs.

Lyme disease was first described in 1975 when an unusual outbreak of rheumatoid arthritis occurring in children was reported in Lyme, Connecticut. Lyme disease is caused by the corkscrew-shaped bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi. The bacteria are carried by ticks which transmit the infection when they feed on animals and humans. The disease is known to cause generalized illness in animals and humans worldwide. About 75% of dogs living in endemic regions are exposed to infected ticks, but only a small percentage of exposed dogs develop signs of disease, making them a silent carrier of Lyme.

Today, Lyme disease is the most common disease transmitted by insects occurring in people and probably in dogs in the United States. Dogs are most frequently infected with the Lyme disease bacteria, but infections can also occur in horses, cattle, and cats. In Americans and their pets, Lyme disease is on the rise. In 2014, studies showed that Lyme disease in dogs has increased 21% since 2009, and 2013, 1 in every 130 dogs in the United States carries the disease-causing bacteria. Since 2009, populations of the two species of ticks that carry Lyme disease have exploded – there are a couple of theories for the rise. As white tailed deer populations have escalated (because of the loss of their natural predators) so have the tick populations that dine upon them, primarily in the areas east of the Rocky Mountains. The more deer there are, the more ticks there are, and the higher likelihood that your pet will be bitten. Forest fragmentation could also explain the rise in disease. White-footed mice, a main carrier of Lyme disease-causing bacteria, thrive in areas of patchy woods, which are very common in cities and suburbs. These mice could spell trouble for people and pets living nearby. Lyme disease infections are increasing, and outnumber all other insect-borne diseases, including West Nile. The risk of Lyme disease depends on where you live. In the states, New Hampshire has the highest rate of Lyme disease cases – 1 in every 15 dogs was found to be infected. New England as a whole has a higher rate of Lyme disease overall.

The most common sign of Lyme disease in dogs is arthritis, which causes sudden lameness, pain and sometimes swelling in one or more joints. Other signs that may be seen include fever, lack of appetite, inactivity, and swollen lymph nodes. In severe cases, the infection can cause kidney failure and death although this does not occur commonly in dogs. If your dog is diagnosed with Lyme disease, you are NOT at risk of getting Lyme disease directly from your pet. The bacteria increase to high levels in the blood of wildlife but humans and domestic animals develop very low levels of the bacteria in their blood and will not infect a feeding tick.

Fortunately, Lyme disease is easily treated in dogs and also fairly simple to prevent: simply keep ticks off your dog. You wear sunblock to prevent sunburns, so why not give your dog a similar treatment to deter ticks? There are many highly effective veterinary products that will kill ticks on your dog before the tick can transmit the bacteria. The best method of prevention is to avoid tick infested areas, especially areas with tall grass or shrubs in the spring when the young ticks are most active. When returning from a tick-infested area do a thorough search for ticks on both yourself and your animals. Ticks should be removed carefully with a tweezers, pinching the tick near the point they enter the skin. Researchers have learned that infected ticks must feed for about 24 hours to transmit the bacteria to a susceptible animal, so quick removal of ticks from your pet reduces the chance of your pet contracting Lyme disease. If your pet develops a skin infection at the site of the bite, contact your local veterinarian for additional treatment.