Ten years ago Fort Saskatchewan veterinarian Dr. Lani LaFrance rarely talked about ticks in her practice – now, the blood-sucking arachnids are a regular part of the discussion during annual vaccine appointments.
“There a few different bugs that we regularly watch for. Ticks are one of the new ones,” LaFrance said at the Fort Saskatchewan Veterinary Clinic, where she has been practicing since 2006.
LaFrance is one of many vets in the area accepting tick submissions from the public as part of the provincial government’s tick surveillance program. The province expanded its tick monitoring program in 2013, trying to find out more about which species of the tiny creatures are present in Alberta and how many of them harbour the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease.
LaFrance encourages anyone finding a tick on their animal to bring it in for testing.
“Pull it off live, put it live in a Ziplock baggie and drop it off and I'll send it off. And there's no charge," LaFrance said.
The ticks are tested at the provincial public health laboratory in Edmonton, with results shared with pet owners.
“It's going to come back and tell us what type of tick it was, whether it's a Lyme disease carrying tick. It will tell us if it's positive for Lyme disease or is it a tick that can carry Lyme disease but this one's not positive," LaFrance explained.
According to the government, blacklegged ticks – the type known to carry the bacteria – do not have established populations in the province, with any found here likely carried in by migratory birds. People and animals can also pick up blacklegged ticks in other parts of the country.
LaFrance has seen cases where dogs returned from Saskatchewan or the U.S. carrying stow-away ticks that ended up testing positive for the bacteria.
“So ticks can really hop on people and get carried along, hop in vehicles and get carried along. So it is something where you can kind of pick it up with travels.”
Dogs bitten by ticks might not show any obvious signs, but owners can check for the parasites by sight or feel.
“If the tick has been latched on long enough that it's actually taken a blood meal, it will look like a little skin tag hanging off the skin. Or it's that they find something that looks almost like a mite that's not inflated, it's that small and it's crawling in amongst the fur and they pull it off and have us double check.”
Although the chance of developing Lyme disease remains small even for pets bitten with bacteria-carrying ticks, LaFrance starts animals on antibiotic treatment as soon as lab reports come back positive, before any Lyme disease symptoms show.
“Lyme disease, it's not a fun disease to try and figure out after the fact,” she said. “You can get intermittent fevers. You can get intermittent arthritis. It's very vague signs.”
The increasing popularity of tick preventatives may be helping to keep Lyme at bay in local pets. Pet owners can turn to a number of products, including topical treatments and flavoured chews, to help keep their pets safe from tick bites.