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When Fleas & Ticks Necessitate a Trip to the ER

By:  Alyssa Mages, BS, CVT – Education & Development Coordinator

If you’re anything like me, I am NOT a fan of creepy, crawly creatures.  Especially if they’re the ones that make their meals from feeding on me or my fur-babies!  We’d like to share with you why those monthly preventatives your primary veterinarian recommended are so important, and when to recognize that your dog or cat needs more emergent care.

Ticks, ICK! Lyme Disease, Anaplasmosis, & Ehrlichiosis

Most of us are very familiar with the first tick-borne illness – Lyme disease – now more than ever.

The black legged tick family, of which the deer tick is the most famous, house the bacterium responsible for this known as Borrelia burgdorferi.  This is a notoriously difficult microbe to eradicate due to its spiral-shape, and that it travels rapidly throughout the bloodstream.  For Lyme to be contracted by your pet, the tick must be attached to them for at least 48 hours, so the best way to prevent systemic spread is to remove the ticks as soon as you find them.  In cases where the signs are subtle, or your pet has other issues that may mask them, the best bet is to have your primary veterinarian include a Lyme test as a part of their bi-annual health screen (bloodwork).

Typically, we see canine patients much more so than cats, and of those only 10% of dogs that test positive for Lyme will ever develop clinical illness.  What we mean by ‘clinical illness’ is signs & symptoms that you can easily recognize, and for Lyme disease these include:

  • Lameness – shifting from side to side, and front to back limbs; this can come and go
  • Generalized stiffness, discomfort, or pain – unable to lie down or stand up without difficulty, vocalization
  • Loss of appetite – refusal to eat even favorite foods
  • Fever – rectal temperatures greater than 102.5 °F
  • Lethargy – lack of energy, reluctance to activity
  • Enlarged lymph nodes – ‘glands’ that are located throughout the body to ward off infection; most commonly noted under the lower jaw

When would any of the above constitute an emergency?  When your pet is having pronounced difficulty walking & is painful (lameness, vocalizing, joints are visibly swollen), if it has been more than 24 hours since they’ve eaten a significant amount, when they have a very high temperature (above 103.5°F), they are ‘profoundly’ lethargic (refusal to get up, difficult to rouse), or you can feel noticeable swellings underneath their lower jaw.

There are more advanced complications that can arise should Lyme disease go untreated such as Lyme nephritis (kidney damage/failure), Lyme carditis (heart damage), and other neurological effects that can also occur so please contact us should you notice any of the above symptoms.

Anaplasmosis

This is a lesser known condition but is still one to be aware of as the occurrence in our canine friends is on the rise.  Our kitty companions can also contract this disease, but the incidence is much less since most of them are indoor-only pets.

Anaplasmosis comes in two forms – Anaplasma phagocytophilium which infects white blood cells (this is the form that we as humans can also contract; but NOT from our pets! It’s via a direct tick bite), and Anaplasma platys which infects a dog’s platelets – the blood cells responsible for clot formation.

The brown dog tick is the carrier of the A. platys form of the bacterium, whereas A. phagocytophilium is transmitted by the deer tick, and western black-legged tick.  But wait – those two ticks also carry Lyme disease don’t they?  Yes, which is why it’s not uncommon to see dogs co-infected with multiple tick-borne illnesses.

So what should you be on the lookout for with this condition?  Typically, symptoms arise within 1-2 weeks of the initial bite, but since there are two different bacteria to be aware of, there are also 2 different groups of symptoms to know as well.

Anaplasma phagocytophilium (more commoninfects WHITE blood cells):

Generally vague & non-specific but include:

  • Lameness & joint pain
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever (greater than 102.5°F)
  • Less frequently seen – coughing, seizures, vomiting, & diarrhea
  • Anaplasma platys(less common; infects the PLATELETS)
  • Signs of this form are related to the body’s inability to stop bleeding and may include:
  • Bruising (belly & groin)
  • Red pin-prick lesions (gums, mucous membranes)
  • Nosebleeds

If you note any of the above, please call your veterinarian or our emergency department at MVA and have your pet evaluated sooner rather than later, especially if you note any abnormal bruising, or excessive bleeding.

Ehrlichiosis

Is yet another primarily canine issue and comes in 2 varieties as well.  The first is also known as Canine Monocytic Ehrlichiosis, or CME.  Transmission is via the brown dog tick and can occur within 3-6 hours of their attachment to a canine host.  Symptoms tend not to arise for 1-3 weeks after being bitten, and can include:

  • Fever (greater than 102.5 °F)
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Lymph node enlargement (under lower jaw, in armpits)
  • Abnormal bruising & bleeding (gums, belly, groin)
  • Ongoing eye inflammation (swollen conjunctiva, discharge)
  • Neurologic abnormalities (head tilt, lack of balance, seizures – rare)
  • Occasionally lameness

These will usually last for approximately 2-4 weeks if left untreated, and many dogs will seem to recover on their own and enter another phase of infection which may then last anywhere from months to years.

The 2nd type is called Canine Granulocytic Ehrlichiosis (CGE) and is transmitted via the lone star tick, with the following symptoms that differ slightly from CME:

  • Fever (greater than 102.5°F)
  • Lethargy
  • Lameness – common; more akin to stiffness when walking
  • Vomiting/Diarrhea

Neurologic abnormalities (head tilt, lack of balance, seizures – rare)

Treatment for Tick-Borne Illnesses

Lyme Disease, Anaplasmosis, & Ehrlichiosis can be treated with the antibiotics doxycycline or amoxicillin – each case is different, hence the difference in treatment options. The earlier you recognize the symptoms, and the sooner treatment begins, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Most dogs are treated with these antibiotics for a full 30 days, though we may sometimes see improvement within the first few days of treatment. Currently we don’t know if some dogs become persistent carriers without showing clinical signs of disease, as some dogs may continue to test positive for any of these diseases even after treatment and seeming to be healthy overall.

In more severe cases of any of the above conditions associated with tick bites, hospitalization for IV fluids, blood transfusions, pain management medications, and/or immunotherapy may be recommended and medically necessary.

These are the many reasons your primary veterinarian recommends – and so do we – for you to keep up with those monthly preventatives for your fur babies, as the subtlety of these symptoms makes it a bit more challenging to diagnose, so keeping a sharp eye out for 1) ticks on your pets, and 2) anything that isn’t “right” with your pet, is a huge part of the preventative process.  Remember to always keep our number handy should you have any questions or concerns as we’re here for you and your pets 24/7/365!