Oddly enough to those of us living in New England, Lyme disease is kind of a controversial issue in veterinary medicine. When we get onto the topic of vaccinating against Lyme disease, opinions really start to fly around and when we get to the topic of vaccinating dogs who have tested positive for Lyme disease it can get down right ugly! Which when you think about it objectively, the idea of people fighting over these kind of issues is sort of hilarious, in a sad way.
I’m not going to try to convince anyone one way or the other about whether or not Lyme vaccines are necessary or if dogs who have tested positive should be vaccinated. People can think what they want, I’ll continue to make the best decisions I can with the information available being processed by my meager mind and I expect others to do the same. If you are a veterinarian who disagrees with me or a pet owner who sees a veterinarian who disagrees with me, welcome to medicine where there is often more than one point of view. I care about what you think but more about how you got there.
My approach to preventing Lyme disease can be compared to preventing automobile deaths and for me, makes for an easier explanation of my position.
The first line of defense in preventing Lyme disease in your pet is checking for ticks every time your pet goes outside and removing them as soon as you find them. I would compare this to paying attention when you are driving as far as preventing automobile deaths is concerned. If you are looking for ticks or if you are being attentive to the environment around you while operating a motor vehicle, the chances of contracting Lyme disease or dying in a car crash are greatly reduced. Respectively of course. The best way to check for ticks is to run your hands all over your dog, going against the fur patterns on their skin. Combs and brushes may also help to remove unattached ticks or uncover attached ones. Attached ticks are best removed by grasping them down by their head and pulling straight out. I use my fingers for this. In all of the time I have been practicing veterinary medicine in tick endemic areas I have never seen a situation where leaving the head behind happened or caused any ill effects. I have never seen evidence suggesting it happens with any regularity that would elevate concerns. It would probably have similar statistical occurrence rates (though less horrible effects) to being killed in a vehicle by objects – like meteorites – falling from the sky. It happens but that’s no reason for everyone to drive an armored vehicle. So pull ticks out as soon as you find them.
The second line of defense would be using an effective product for repelling or killing ticks when they get on your dog. You might think that I have it backwards and this should be first and checking for ticks should be second. Fine, copy and paste this into a word document, change the order around and read it that way. By having a tick preventative on your dog you are preventing the ticks from being on your dog long enough to bite and transmit Lyme. The bacteria isn’t injected into your dog immediately by the tick but if the tick is ingesting poison immediately and dying within a few minutes, transmission of Lyme is virtually impossible. Using a decent flea and tick preventative is like putting seat belts in cars and using the seat belts. Seat belts have been required in motor vehicles since 1968, as you might expect there was a lag time between requiring seat belts in cars and seeing a significant decrease in deaths per hundred thousand people in the country. The law requiring seat belts did not require everyone to buy a new car. But less than 10 years after the implementation of the law, automobile deaths had decreased by more than 20%. There are many flea and tick products on the market. I recommended a few here. I stand by those recommendations.
Finally, Lyme vaccines are available and are effective for dogs. No vaccine is 100% effective and bacterial vaccines are particularly difficult because bacterial surface proteins are constantly evolving but studies have shown the vaccine to have an efficacy between 80 – 90%. Vaccinating against Lyme disease is like driving a car with an airbag. Airbags in vehicles were first introduced as an idea in the 1940’s but did not become prevalent n vehicles until the late 1990’s. As a result of airbag and seat belt use combined with safe driving, automobile deaths per hundred thousand citizens are the lowest they have been since 1918. Yes, that was the last time in the 20th century the Red Sox won the world series. Adding Lyme vaccines into your dog’s healthcare plan if you live in an endemic region is a very solid idea. Depending solely on the vaccine to protect your dog from Lyme disease might work but I would consider it very similar to driving a car distracted with just the airbag to prevent you. You’ll probably live through the accident but there’s also a small chance the airbag will kill you. In a similar fashion, while vaccines are typically safe and effective, there is a risk associated with stimulating the immune system and vaccine related deaths in pets do happen. So while I think every dog in endemic regions should be vaccinated for Lyme disease, I also think exactly zero pets living in non-endemic regions should be vaccinated for Lyme disease.
A side note on vaccinating, Lyme vaccines do not prevent the other diseases transmitted by ticks and this small but important fact is another reason I consider tick removal and prevention more important than vaccination.
Even with vigilant drivers who are wearing their seat belts and driving cars with airbags, there are going to be some deaths on the road every year. In a similar fashion, Lyme disease which may have been around 15 million years ago is still likely to score a few points against us despite our best efforts. But by checking for ticks every time your dog goes outside, removing them whenever you find them, using an effective flea and tick preventative and vaccinating against Lyme if you live in a Lyme endemic region, you greatly reduce your dog’s chances of being afflicted by this disease.
Thanks for reading.