Rabies, heartworm, ticks — oh, my! | TheUnion.com

Rabies, heartworm, ticks — oh, my!

Back in the “old days,” pet owners could do very little to prevent diseases in their furry companions — and even when preventatives were available, many people simply didn’t bother.

Today, we have dozens of options that can prevent a battery of nasty diseases in our four-legged friends.

So many, in fact, that pet owners sometimes feel like they’re lost on the Yellow Brick Road without a guide.

So let’s take a look at some of the more common canine diseases and the preventative measures that most veterinarians recommend we should employ.

Tick-borne diseases

Every year, thousands of dogs are infected with serious illnesses spread by a tiny, innocuous-looking insect that can be found everywhere from the deepest backwoods to perfectly-groomed urban parks: the tick. Since 2006, the U.S. has seen a 30 percent increase in the rate of dogs exposed to tick-transmitted diseases.

Ticks — which, by the way, need to be embedded for 24 to 48 hours to spread infections — attach themselves to dogs, feed on blood and transmit diseases directly into the bloodstream.

Both prescription and over-the-counter products can prevent ticks from attaching, but nothing offers 100 percent protection. The best preventative is to check your dog daily during tick season or if you live in a tick-prone region and remove and destroy any ticks you find.

Major canine tick-borne diseases include:

• Ehrlichiosis: This disease is caused by the brown dog tick, and is one of the most common and dangerous tick-borne diseases infecting dogs. Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, weight loss, runny eyes and nose, nose bleeds and swollen limbs. In its acute stage, erlichiosis can be fatal.

• Lyme disease: This bacterial infection, most prevalent in the northeast, can now be found in many other states, including California. Transmitted by the tiny (barely the size of a sesame seed) deer tick, it can cause stiffness, lameness, swollen joints, loss of appetite, fever and fatigue.

• Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever: The American dog tick, the wood tick and the lone star tick carry this disease, which causes fever, stiffness, skin lesions and neurological problems. Serious cases can result in death.


This terrifying disease is almost 100 percent lethal in unvaccinated animals and virtually 100 percent preventable. Historically, most rabies cases were in domestic animals; today, thanks to the development of a canine rabies vaccine in 1960, more than 90 percent of animal rabies occur in wildlife.

Rabies vaccination is mandatory for all dogs throughout the nation. This means that if your dog isn’t vaccinated against rabies, you’re breaking the law. You’re also endangering your dog’s life, not to mention your life and the life of every other animal and human with whom he comes into contact in the event he’s bitten by a rabid animal.


Heartworm is a parasite that is transmitted when an infective mosquito bites a dog; the infective larvae eventually migrate to the animal’s heart, where they multiply and cause life-threatening symptoms. Virtually 100 percent of dogs exposed to these larvae develop heartworm disease.

Heartworm infection is found in every state, although some areas show a higher incidence of the disease. Regardless, because all dogs are at risk, prevention must be your first consideration. There are currently four products approved for use as a heartworm preventative, and all are highly effective when used regularly.

While a heartworm-infected dog can be treated if the infection is in its early stages, the treatment is costly, extremely toxic and requires up to three months of absolute rest to prevent lethal exercise-induced blood clots.


Prior to the emergence of canine parvovirus in the 1970s, distemper was the most feared disease found in domestic dogs. This highly contagious, largely incurable disease attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal, and central nervous systems and is fatal in half of adult dogs and 80 percent of puppies. Vaccination against distemper should be considered mandatory for any responsible dog owner.


While the canine parvovirus is epidemic worldwide, effective vaccines have made it much less common in the U.S. today. Veterinary experts agree, however, that vaccinating your dog is absolutely critical to control the spread of the disease, since its viral particles are found everywhere. Death from parvovirus comes from either extreme dehydration and shock or of system-wide infection from toxic intestinal bacteria.

With all this said, there are few hard and fast answers to the question of what preventative medications we should give our dogs; even within the veterinary community, there are widely differing opinions about the safety and necessity of certain drugs and vaccines. Keep in mind that all medications have both risks and benefits, and not every dog needs to be medicated against every disease. Your decision should be based on discussions with your veterinarian to assess the safest protocol for your dog based on your geographic location, travel routine and lifestyle.

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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