Springtime creepy-crawlies and what to do about them | TheUnion.com

Springtime creepy-crawlies and what to do about them

Joan Merriam
Special to The Union

So, you've just come home from a springtime walk along one of our many beautiful nature trails with your four-legged friend, and you see something on her fur that looks like a piece of dirt. On closer inspection — and much to your disgust — you discover it's not dirt, it's a TICK!

Few insects generate the kind of universal revulsion as ticks. (Yeah, yeah: I know that entomologically speaking, ticks aren't actually insects, but are members of the arachnid family, like spiders and scorpions.)

Regardless of what you call them, there's just something about a creature that feeds off blood that makes our skin crawl.

Strangely, most people don't have the same repulsive response to another bloodsucking insect — in fact, we tend to view the lowly mosquito as more of an irritation than an object of distaste.

Since its discovery in Connecticut in 1975, Lyme disease has become the most reported vector-borne disease in the nation.

Yet in truth, both of these pests can be equally dangerous, and even deadly, to our canine companions. Let's take a closer look at each one in turn.

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Simply put, ticks are parasites. And like most parasites, ticks can host a variety of serious infections that they're more than happy to pass on to whatever victim they happen to bite, including your dog and even you.

Here in California, the tick that carries the greatest danger is the western black-legged tick or deer tick.

Black-legged ticks were once restricted to the Northeastern and upper-Midwestern U.S.; in recent years, however, its territory has been expanding rapidly.

Today, the western black-legged tick is found in 53 of California's 58 counties.

While this tick can carry a variety of infections including spotted fever and tularemia, it is principally known as the carrier for Lyme disease. In fact, it is the only tick of California's 48 tick species that transmits Lyme.

Since its discovery in Connecticut in 1975, Lyme disease has become the most reported vector-borne disease in the nation.

While it is far less serious in dogs than in humans, dogs with the Lyme disease can have a number of health issues. Among these are recurrent or acute lameness, swollen joints, fever, loss of appetite, swollen lymph glands, and in rare cases, chronic kidney disease.

The upside is that Lyme is both treatable and preventable. Usually, a three- to four-week course of antibiotics will eliminate the disease. Although if the dog is exposed to ticks again after treatment, he can become re-infected.

As with most diseases, prevention is the best medicine. Since our Sierra foothill communities are among the state's "hot spots" for Lyme, most veterinarians recommend a two-pronged approach: monthly tick-repellent treatments or tick collars, and most importantly, being a vigilant pet parent.

Especially if you've been walking in woodland areas, check your dog for ticks and remove them right away; an infected tick must be attached for 24-48 hours to transmit Lyme disease.

Remember that ticks don't fly or jump: they crawl onto people or animals that brush up against low-lying shrubs and grasses.

You can also choose to vaccinate your dog against Lyme disease. While there is a very low incidence of side effects from this vaccine, you should always consult with your veterinarian before undertaking a vaccination program.


Unless you've had to deal with a mosquito-borne disease like malaria, you probably think of these buzzing beasties as a mere backyard annoyance. To your dog, however, they can be lethal.

Mosquitoes carry the parasitic roundworm responsible for the heartworm infection. It's a deadly round-robin affair: mosquitoes become infected with heartworm microfilariae — heartworm offspring — while taking a blood meal from an infected animal.

These microfilariae mature into larvae inside the mosquito, which then bites another animal and deposits the larvae, which travel through the new animal's bloodstream into the heart and pulmonary vessels.

Later, these larvae mature into adult heartworms, which reproduce a new set of microfilariae offspring which get transmitted to another mosquito, and on and on it goes.

Meanwhile, the adult heartworms continue to grow, sometimes reaching over a foot long, and continue to reproduce inside the animal.

The result is a sickening, twisted glob of dozens or even hundreds of worms inside the animal's heart that ultimately lead to life-threatening cardiac damage.

Treating a heartworm-infected dog is both costly and dangerous. It involves a series of injections with an arsenic-based product that kills the adult heartworms. But that's not the end of the ordeal.

As the worms begin to die, they break into small pieces, which can block the pulmonary vessels and even cause death.

If the dog isn't kept completely quiet, with no exercise whatsoever for several months after the initial treatment, heart failure and death can result.

And then there's the expense. Considering pre-treatment blood work, X-rays, and other tests, costs can run well above $1,000.

The good news is that the disease is easily preventable with a monthly dose of heartworm preventative medication such as Heartgard or Trifexis.

And lest you think heartworm isn't a problem in our area, think again. As with Lyme, our Sierra region is one of the state's prime territories for heartworm infection.

So when it comes to protecting your dog from Lyme disease and heartworm, remember the old adage that prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Happy spring!

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Casey (hence, "Casey's Corner"). You can reach Joan at joan@joanmerriam.com. And if you're looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

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