Identifying and Preventing Tick-Borne Illnesses

By Lyda Gould

It is unknown how many dogs are infected with tick-borne illnesses every year. Symptoms are often elusive and the disease insidious. However, we do know that contraction rates are very high in Virginia and along the Northeast Coast and Midwest regions. A new website called, sponsored by Idexx Labs – producer of the most common diagnostic canine test for tick-borne illnesses—has been tracking data on a number of these diseases for the past five years with figures that demonstrate just how prevalent these vector-borne diseases are.

Lyme Disease

The most well-known bacterial disease carried by the black-legged tick, or deer tick, is Lyme disease. The symptoms of Lyme manifest themselves differently in dogs than in humans. In dogs, symptoms may include stiffness or swelling in joints, fatigue, loss of appetite, lameness and in severe cases can lead to kidney failure. Unfortunately, canine symptoms can range from virtually unnoticeable to debilitating. According to the CDC, 95 percent of dogs who are infected with the disease never show symptoms and some pets are infected with the disease for more than a year before showing symptoms.

One of SPCA NOVA’s long-term foster residents, an 11-year-old Border Collie/Sheltie mix named Lipton, was diagnosed with Lyme after his foster parents noticed that he was lethargic and severely limping. A blood test confirmed the Lyme diagnosis and he was promptly put on two weeks of antibiotics, which really upset his stomach. His foster parents found that he never quite recovered and the effects of the disease seemed to cause him to age faster. As the caretakers of a dog who went through Lyme, they have found it “an insidious disease for both humans and dogs” and advise that all pet owners keep their dog on preventative medicine religiously.


Another common, but lesser known tick-borne illness prevalent in dogs in our area is Ehrlichiosis. It is found around the world and, according to the AKC, is the most dangerous and prevalent of the tick-borne illnesses. The disease is spread by the brown dog tick and lone star tick. Symptoms of this disease include depression, swollen limbs and fever. Unfortunately, antibiotic treatment may not result in complete elimination of the bacteria


Anaplasmosis, spread via the deer tick and brown dog tick, is also a common tick-borne illness coming in two forms. The first form affects white blood cells and the second form affects the blood platelets, which can result in bleeding disorders. Symptoms for this disease are as vague and ambiguous as they are for Ehrlichiosis. Veterinarians will look for signs of symptoms as well as blood test results to verify presence of infection for both diseases. Treatment is a course of antibiotics.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

You may have heard of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), another known disease in our area that can be transmitted to dogs. RMSF is carried by the American Dog Tick and the Lone Star tick, both of which are found on the East Coast. Treatment for RMSF is a course of antibiotics.


The prevalence of ticks in our area means that you don’t have to be wading through high grasses or in fields to pick up a hitchhiking tick. Lipton was likely romping around in the backyard or out for a regular walk when he contracted the disease. The best form of prevention is applying a monthly flea and tick preventative along with checking yourself and your dog regularly. Unlike many critters that hibernate in the winter, ticks can be active year-round so long as the temperatures are above freezing; though late spring and summer are considered the highest risk seasons for ticks.

Finding a Tick on You or Your Dog

If you do find a tick, the best way to remove it is with a pair of tweezers, gripping the head, not the body, as close to the skin as possible and pulling straight up. You can submerge the tick in alcohol, seal it in a bag, or wrap it in tape, but never crush a tick with your fingers. Learn to identify the different ticks prominent in our area. However, when a tick becomes engorged after feeding, it may appear as white or have a silvery or grayish color. This appearance is particularly common in the deer tick.

Can I Submit a Tick for Lab Testing?

“Some state or local health departments offer tick identification… check with your local health department.” – CDC

There are a couple of pay-for-service companies that offer tick testing. However, these tests are generally not useful because an infected tick may not have transmitted the bacteria to the host.

Learn to recognize tick types. Different ticks transmit different diseases.

Sources Contributing to this Article:

Further Reading:

SPCA NOVA dog Lipton was diagnosed and treated for Lyme at home with his long-term foster parents.
Canine vector-borne disease prevalence map
IDEXX Laboratories

Did You Know?

Cats are not known to contract vector borne illnesses as persistently as dogs. This is attributed to their regular self-grooming. Many believe that cats rid themselves of ticks before they can transmit the disease-causing bacteria.