Lyme disease in dogs may be more prevalent than previously thought say researchers in the UK in a recent warning about the presence of ticks in England and Wales. 2010 saw just 953 reported cases of infected ticks found on dogs but Bristol University scientists think the problem is likely to be much larger across the two countries and also steadily growing. Dogs can be seen as sentinels for the rate of Lyme disease in an area, prompting many to fear that cases of Lyme disease in humans are remaining unreported, and therefore untreated, in the UK.
Lyme Disease in Dogs in the UK
Rates of Lyme disease in dogs, and in people in the UK have been rising in recent years prompting calls for better surveillance, routine diagnostic testing, and efforts at Lyme disease prevention. The latest research looked at over 3500 records from veterinary clinics of random checks on dogs and found that nearly 15% had ticks. Of the 739 samples able to be tested, 2.3% were infected with Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi.
Dogs with Lyme Disease Suggest Human Infection Rates
The research was led by Faith Smith who notes that the prevalence of infected ticks on dogs in the UK is likely to be around 0.5%, or 481 infected ticks per 100,000 dogs. Whilst dogs may be more likely to pick up ticks by running around in long grass, shrubbery, or other tick-infested areas it has been said that dogs are sentinel animals for human Lyme disease infection, providing an indication of the rate of the infection in an area. The areas that dogs pick up ticks are usually also frequented by their owners and it is possible that dogs, particularly those with long and/or dark fur, will carry ticks into the house. These ticks may then drop off in the home and seek out a new host, whether animal or human. The researchers also point out that Lyme disease has an economic impact both through loss of earnings as patients suffer and through reductions in tourism to a heavily tick-infested region.
Recognizing Lyme Disease in the UK
Publishing the findings in the journal Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, Smith, et al, warned that the rate of Lyme disease will likely increase and require more significant management in the future. The UK’s climate is also making areas of the country more hospitable to ticks than ever before with warmer winters extending the active tick season and growing populations of deer in urban spaces carrying the ticks into people’s gardens and communal spaces. The situation is also complicated by the general lack of awareness of Lyme disease in the UK as few are diagnosed and many still consider the infection to be the purview of hypochondriacs obsessed with a Lyme disease ‘myth.’
Are UK Doctors Lyme-Aware?
UK residents would be better armed against the potentially devastating symptoms of Lyme disease if they knew what to look for as early warning signs. The Lyme disease rash, erythema migrans does not occur at the same rate in cases of infection with European strains of Borrelia as it does in the US and neurological symptoms are thought more prevalent here than in Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto infection. Doctors themselves are also at a loss most often to recognize Lyme disease symptoms as they may never have been taught about the condition due to its perceived rarity. Veterinarians may also struggle to recognise symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs, especially as the distinctive rash is often not present or is concealed under their coat.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Europe
Untreated Lyme disease can cause problems with the central nervous system, the heart, the joints, and even the gastrointestinal system. This all leads to a variety of symptoms which may appear unrelated, especially where they occur several weeks or months apart. Many will consider them to be signs of isolated infection, injury, or stress rather than part of an overall problem and so undiagnosed Lyme disease remains unaddressed or inadequately addressed through inappropriate antibiotic application. Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs in the UK may also differ from those seen in dogs in the US as neurological manifestations could be more prevalent in comparison to Lyme arthritis, just as in human patients.
Lyme Disease Prevention in the UK
A spokeswoman from the UK’s Health Protection Agency has stressed the importance of remaining ‘tick aware’ especially in woodland areas where it is wise to keep to the center of footpaths and avoid the long grass. Tick-repellents, long-sleeved clothing, and pants tucked into boots or socks can also help form a barrier to ticks but it is also wise to perform tick checks on all family members, including dogs prior to re-entering the home after outdoor activity. Perhaps this latest research will help spur the HPA to create a substantive Lyme disease prevention plan and make UK citizens increasingly aware that their dogs may be Lyme disease sentinels offering them an early warning.
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Smith, F., Ballantyne, R., Morgan, E.R., Wall, R., Estimating Lyme disease risk using pet dogs as sentinels, Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. 2012 Jan 16.