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Tick-borne Illness in Dogs & Cats

Spring is finally here, and after this long, hard winter we can finally enjoy more time outdoors with our pets! The ASPCA has a short springtime pet-care safety guide you may be interested in: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/springtime-safety-tips

As the weather warms up we will also see the emergence of ticks in our area. In our experience these little blood suckers are voracious as they come out of “hibernation.”

Life cycle of ticks

There are different species of ticks in the United States and there are several types in our part of southeastern Pennsylvania.  It is helpful to recognize the different species because each can transmit different, sometimes very serious diseases to our pets and to us!

Ticks in our area are inactive in the cold of winter, require 2 years to complete their lifecycle, and pass through four stages of development: egg, larva, nymph and adult.

Tick Lifecycle

The female ticks tend to be slightly larger than the males, and the scutum, or hard shell covering extends the entire back on the male, but only one-third of the way on females. Scutum derives from the Latin and means “shield”, its shape and pattern is a helpful way to identify the different species. The University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter website has an extensive section on tick identification. http://www.tickencounter.org/tick_identification/tick_species

Tick species and transmitted disease  

Below is a table of tick species encountered here in southeastern PA and the illnesses that they can transmit.

Species Illness
Deer Tick* Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis and Babesiosis
American Dog Tick Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia
Brown Dog Tick* Ehrlichia and Babesiosis
Lone Star Tick Ehrlichia and Babesiosis

* The Deer Tick and Brown Dog Tick are the most common species in our area. The Brown Dog Tick has a nasty habit of taking up residence indoors – like in your house!

Clinically, Dr. Rubin finds that Lyme disease is the most prevalent tick-borne illness in our area, but not the most problematic health-wise, whereas Ehrlichia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Babesiosis can have the most life-threatening symptoms.  Anaplasmosis is the least problematic. Rockledge Veterinary Clinic vets do see cases of Lyme and Ehrlichia, some cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and while Babesiosis is present in southeastern Pennsylvania, RVC vets have not seen a case for a while in this immediate area.

Cats do get ticks, but they are not as susceptible to tick-born illnesses as dogs. There are a couple of uncommon tick-borne diseases in cats in this area, petmd has a slideshow with brief descriptions. http://www.petmd.com/cat/slideshows/parasites/tick-borne-diseases-lyme-diseaseand-your-cat

How will you know if your dog is sick from a tick bite?

He or she may have a fever, be lethargic, limping, not wanting to move, malaise, pale mucous membranes (you can tell by pulling the lips back and looking at the gums), be vomiting and/or have  diarrhea.  In fact anything else where you think your dog is not him/herself.  Tick-borne illnesses present as a wide range of symptoms. So, especially if your pet spends time outdoors and/or if you have seen and pulled ticks off, you might suspect a tick-borne illness if he or she becomes symptomatic.


At Rockledge, we routinely check your pet at their annual checkup using Idexx Laboratory’s SNAP® 4Dx®test. It’s a blood test we run in the office that checks for the presence of Lyme, Ehrlichia, Anaplasmosis and Heartworm. We’ll know immediately if that test is positive or negative. If we then also need to rule out Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever we’ll send blood to the lab for testing. (Of course if your pet is experiencing any of the symptoms stated above, don’t wait for the annual checkup to determine if she has one of these illnesses!)

What happens if they are positive?

The most common treatment is an antibiotic (usually Doxycycline). For Ehrlichia and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever sometimes a steroid is added (usually Prednisone).


The most common way to prevent a tick bite in dogs and cats is by using spot-ons or a tick collar. It’s Dr. Rubin’s opinion that the tick-collar may expose the pet owner to the insecticide more than the spot-on.

Spot-ons come in a tube and are applied to the skin at the base of the neck. They are usually effective for one month. Some are reported to kill the tick within a couple of hours of the tick being on the pet. This is important because it can take from 24 to 48 hours for the tick to transmit the illness. Killing the ticks before that timeframe ensures that they cannot transmit the illness.

We try to encourage pet owners not to use the spot-ons (or collars) year round because we don’t know the long-term effects of constant exposure to the chemicals. We recommend a judicious use only during the tick season. Spring and Fall are high “traffic” tick seasons in our area, but again it depends on your pet and their particular environment and activities. Certainly a hunting dog that is spending a lot of time in brushy, grassy fields and scrub lands, especially those with a high population of deer will encounter a good number of ticks. Whereas a house cat that never goes outdoors, not so much.

There are natural products but they seem not to be as effective for ticks as they are for fleas. You might want to read this short article “It’s Always Tick Season Somewhere” and reader comments on The Whole Dog Journal. http://www.whole-dog-journal.com/blog/Best-Tick-Defense-For-Canine-20447-1.html

CAT CAUTION: When applying a spot on onto your cat, be sure that the product is labeled for use on cats. Some dog spot-ons are toxic to felines and could kill your kitty. Beware that treating your dog with certain products can also be dangerous/toxic to your cat if he or she happens to lick the area where the spot on is applied before it dries. Some natural products contain essential oils that can be toxic to cats as well.

The TickEncounter website has a table that lists tick prevention products and their characteristics, as well as the active insecticide/chemical. http://www.tickencounter.org/prevention/tick_control

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven Connecticut has prepared a Tick Management Handbook that includes extensive tips for creating a tick-safe zone in your yard.

The Lyme disease vaccine: pros and cons

Vaccinating your dog against Lyme disease is controversial. There are notable Lyme disease experts that believe that the vaccine can cause a dog to develop Lyme symptoms if the dog has already been exposed to the Lyme spirochete. It is also believed that the vaccine has limited effectiveness. At Rockledge, we will discuss with you the pros and cons of administering the vaccine to your pet.

Dogs can be positive for the presence of the spirochete but never show symptoms during their lifetime. Most cases of Lyme disease present as an acute onset of lameness in one or all legs. Many dogs will not want to get up and move around and may stop eating and drinking. There is a form of Lyme disease that can affect the kidneys, but it is rare. No one knows why, but this form usually affects Golden Retrievers and Labradors.

 Again, many experts believe that vaccinating your dog may not be in your dog’s best interest. Since most dogs never develop illness after being exposed and if she does, it is quite treatable, then administering a vaccine that could potentially cause illness is counterproductive. If you have been vaccinating your dog and have had no ill effects, don’t worry. You can choose to continue or stop. We do use the Lyme vaccine at our clinic, but only if you request it and your dog is at “high risk” for potentially becoming infected.

If you have questions or concerns, please feel free to call the office.


  • Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, Entomology

    Primarily for humans with a short section on dogs, this is an excellent in-depth article on Lyme disease with extensive information on disease transmission, tick lifecycle, and control.

  • The University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Guide

    An entire website whose mission it is to “promote tick-bite protection and tick-borne disease prevention by engaging, educating, and empowering people to take action.”

  • Tick Management Handbook

    The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven Connecticut has prepared a 61-page downloadable pdf handbook that includes general information on ticks and extensive tips for creating a tick-safe zone in your yard.

  • The Whole Dog Journal

    Do a search on the magazine’s website and you will find several articles as well as e-booklets that you can purchase for download on various tick-related topics including reviews of preventative products.


map 401 Huntingdon Pike,
Rockledge, PA 19046
215-379-1675 (fax)
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Monday 9:00 am – 7:00 pm
Tuesday 9:00 am – 8:00 pm
Wednesday 9:00 am – 8:00 pm
Thursday 9:00 am – 7:00 pm
Friday 9:00 am – 6:00 pm
Saturday 8:30 am – 12:00 pm
Sunday Closed

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