By Rob Jennings, Daily News Record (Morris County, NJ)
Lyme disease, a worry for people in tick-laden parts of Morris and Sussex counties, may be an even greater threat to dogs, experts say.
Dogs might be two times more likely than humans to contract Lyme disease, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation.
The disease is rarely fatal in animals or people, but it can be debilitating. Complications of Lyme disease in dogs range from arthritis and lameness to loss of appetite and swollen lymph nodes.
"Dogs are at much greater risk than are people living in the same geographic area," ALDF Executive Director David Weld said in a statement, "and the ratio of unreported cases could be even higher."
An unusually warm winter means a higher population of ticks, and Morris County veterinarians are advising dog owners to take increased precautions with their pets ó and themselves.
"We had a very mild winter, so the normal attrition of ticks through the cold winter didnít really happen as it usually would," said Steven B. Hodes, a Mine Hill veterinarian who was inoculating several dogs against Lyme disease Friday.
State health officials said Friday that tick estimates were not yet available.
"The tick population is absolutely enormous right now. You can hardly go in the woods right now without getting a tick on you," Hodes added.
Michelle Sharp, a Rockaway Township resident, was among those at Hodesí office Friday. Sharp had her 4-month-old poodle, Coal, inoculated against Lyme disease.
The dog vaccine for Lyme disease is up to 95 percent effective in puppies ó a much higher success rate than the human vaccine ó but Hodes noted that its effectiveness drops substantially in older dogs.
Sharp has had several other dogs. She said that none had contracted Lyme disease. Coal was the first to receive the vaccine.
"We live in an area where thereís a lot of deer. The deer just wander around and theyíre always in the yard," Sharp said. "Being that (Coal) has a black coat, we wouldnít be able to see a tick until itís too late."
According to the ALDF, the current record of 17,730 human Lyme disease cases nationwide was set in 2000, and that figure may well be eclipsed this year. The national group does not keep statistics for dogs.
In New Jersey, a total of 1,754 new human Lyme disease cases were reported in 2001 to the state health department.
First diagnosed in the 1970s in the Connecticut town from which it takes its name, Lyme disease is especially prevalent in places with forests and grassy parks, such as the Mendhams and the Chesters.
More than 100,000 people have been diagnosed in the United States, primarily in the Northeast.
Tick collars and topical solutions offer another line of defense against Lyme disease for dogs. Hodes said that he put a tick collar on Monty, his 10-year-old Doberman, Wednesday evening and by Thursday morning "it had a bunch of dead ticks on it."
Monty, who has received the Lyme vaccine, has never had the disease.
Dogs diagnosed with Lyme often are administered doxycycline, the same drug that is given to human sufferers. Even with treatment, Hodes said that approximately 2 to 3 percent of dogs become chronically affected.
Labrador and golden retrievers, in particular, seem to be at risk for potentially fatal complications such as kidney disease. The tick-induced condition is known as "Lyme nephritis."
"I donít think anyone knows why," Hodes said. "Itís just a predilection in those two breeds. Itís a big problem, because there are so many Labs and golden retrievers in this area."
The kidney inflammation is not treatable, Hodes noted.
"If they come down with that, they die," he said.
Former Chester Township Mayor Kenneth Caroís Labrador retriever, Jet, came down with Lyme disease about four years before it died of other causes at age 16. Caro and his wife also have had the disease.
"It made him lame. His hips were just worn out by the time we put him down," Caro said about Jet.
Cheri Smith, owner of the Whippany Veterinary Hospital, said she sees about one or two cases per month of dogs with Lyme.
"Itís very common in this area," Smith said. "Cats get ticks, but for some reason they donít get Lyme disease."
The vaccine for dogs, she noted, has been shown to be a lot more effective than the human vaccine. It also comes without the potential side effects of the shots administered to people, she added.
Smith estimated that about half of the dogs that she treats had received the vaccine, which she starts in puppies as young as 9 weeks old.
Hodes noted that one obvious solution ó keeping dogs inside ó is not a real option. "Only the tiniest of dogs can be totally inside pets," Hodes said.