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Sun, 15 Jul 2018 17:17:00

Lime Disease: Tackling Ticks


Lyme Disease is the tick-borne scourge of the UK countryside, for humans, horses and other pets. If diagnosed early enough, it can be cured with antibiotics, but left to fester the infection can linger on degrading joints and the neurological system, leaving symptoms similar to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome and in some cases proving fatal.

There is an overlap of the clinical signs, symptoms, diagnosis and course of the infection in all mammals affected by this nasty disease. We’ve taken a look at how it affects horses, but – apart from
Erythema Migrans rash in humans
the early physical signs being more evident because of our naked skin (such as the characteristic “bulls-eye” rash, Erythema Migrans, that surrounds the initial tick-bite in the early stages) – the disease manifests itself in an almost identical way in humans.

LYME DISEASE IN HORSES


Once very rare in horses in the UK, the tick-borne Lyme Disease is becoming more common among our equines, though it remains difficult to diagnose and as a result is often not recognised when symptoms are treated. The signs of Lyme Disease are similar to those that point to other complaints, so it can easily be overlooked until it is too late to treat it successfully.

In the UK ticks are particularly active in warm weather (though they can be around in all seasons, being deterred only when the temperature drops below freezing)  and found in various regions of the country, with the risk particularly high in south west England (see the UK Tick ThreatMap). 

The Sheep Tick ... By Hubert Berberich (HubiB)
 [CC BY-SA 3.0 
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
 from Wikimedia Commons.
 Some ticks – in the UK it is usually the infamous hard-bodied Sheep Tick, Ixodes ricinus – are carriers of a spiral-shaped bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi. These troublesome ticks are difficult to spot, being only about 3mm long before they become engorged with the host's blood. When an infected tick attaches itself to a horse (or human or other mammal) by burrowing its head into the skin, the bacteria is passed on to the host. If left undisturbed the tick will feed off of the blood of the host animal for around three days before falling off when engorged, then splitting open on the ground to release new tick larvae, and the cycle begins again.

Signs and symptoms of Lyme Disease

The difficulty is that if you don’t spot a tick on your horse or yourself, it will be long gone of its own accord before any symptoms appear that might lead you to suspect that you or your four-footed friend has contracted Lyme Disease.  It could take months for any signs of infection to appear, and if it goes untreated, becoming chronic, it can cause permanent damage to the liver and central nervous system with serious consequences.

In horses the first signs of Lyme disease are usually weakness and a slight fever; it is difficult to spot during this acute phase, before it becomes chronic, especially when these symptoms appear a long time after infection took place and you probably have no recollection of tick bites on your horse.
As the disease progresses you will notice all or several of the following symptoms – not necessarily in this order or appearing simultaneously:

·         High temperature
·         Appetite loss
·         Weight loss
·         Joint swelling
·         Fatigue and excessive sleeping
·         Sore muscles
·         Irritability
·         Hypersensitive skin
·         Restless legs
·         Weakness
·         Behavioural changes
·         Lameness and stiffness
·         Refusal or reluctance to walk or exercise
·         Laminitis

Diagnosis and Treatment

All the symptoms mentioned above are associated with other, more common, conditions, neurological diseases and viruses. This makes Lyme Disease difficult to identify. If Lyme Disease is suspected blood tests can be performed, but such a test is not reliable or definitive because many horses infected with the bacteria are asymptomatic, so the presence of anti-bodies for Borrelia burgdorferi in the blood do not necessarily rule out other causes for the clinical signs.

Most veterinarians will make efforts to rule out other conditions like arthritis, using an arsenal of diagnostic tests and scans, and ultimately may resort to diagnosing by treatment. Lyme disease responds to aggressive antibiotics, so if infection is suspected your horse will be prescribed the correct antibiotics, pain medication and possibly vitamin supplements and/or probiotics. The horse will then monitored to see if the symptoms go away, and the anti-body counts in the blood reduce. If this happens then the Lyme Disease diagnosis can be confirmed.

Prevention is better than cure

With Lyme Disease being easily masked and mistaken, how do you protect your horse from falling victim to this nasty infection? There is, as yet, no equine vaccine for Lyme Disease.
The obvious answer is to limit his exposure to ticks. This doesn’t mean you have to shut him away in a sterile stable and forego all those lovely woodland and grassland hacks in the summer time! What it does mean is that you should check your horse daily and thoroughly for ticks, which tend to hide in sneaky places like inside the legs and under the jaw.

If you remove a tick quickly enough after it has become embedded you reduce the risk of the infection being transmitted to your horse. Studies indicate it takes around 16 to 20 hours for an embedded tick to start transmitting the bacteria to the host.

Be very careful how you remove ticks. Don’t squeeze the tick’s body because this may accelerate the
Tick Removal with Tweezers
transference of the bacteria from the biting tick into the horse’s bloodstream. Use tweezers or a specially designed tick remover tool and grasp the tick at the head, close to the skin, lifting it firmly upwards without twisting or jerking.

Ticks enjoy long grass, crawling up to lurk and await the chance to hook onto any animal (or person) that brushes by. It’s therefore a good idea to keep your pasture mowed fairly short.

Use insect repellent products that are foruse against ticks, paying attention to the vulnerable parts of the horse’s body like the lower legs, head, belly and tail. While flies and other annoying pests may die off as autumn comes in, ticks can continue causing problems well into the winter, staying active even in temperatures just a few degrees above freezing.

THE MESSAGE IS CLEAR! ALTHOUGH MOST CAN BE REMOVED QUICKLY AND CLEANLY WITH NO ILL EFFECTS TICKS ARE LITTLE CRITTERS THAT ARE NOT TO BE TRIFLED WITH. BE VIGILANT AND KEEP YOURSELF, YOUR HORSES, DOGS AND OTHER PETS TICK FREE, AND BE MINDFUL OF RIDDING YOUR ENVIRONMENT OF TICK-FRIENDLY BREEDING HOSTS SUCH AS SMALL MAMMALS LIKE MICE AND RODENTS.

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