Shelter dogs at risk of tick and mosquito-borne diseases.

Shelter dogs at risk of tick and mosquito-borne diseases.

Global Warming Raises Tick and Mosquito-Borne Disease Risk for Shelter Dogs


As temperatures continue to rise, our furry companions may face a new threat: the spread of tick- and mosquito-borne diseases in a broader geographic area. A recent study conducted on shelter dogs in the eastern United States reveals that these diseases, including heartworm and Lyme disease, are becoming more prevalent due to climate change. However, the good news is that these illnesses can be prevented with medication.

The study, led by Corinna Hazelrig, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, examined blood samples from 3,750 dogs in animal shelters across 19 states. The researchers aimed to determine the prevalence of heartworm and three types of tick-borne bacteria. The results were alarming: more than 10% of the dogs were infected with heartworm, over 8% had been exposed to the bacteria causing Lyme disease, and another 10% were infected with bacteria causing lesser-known tick-borne diseases like anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis. To make matters worse, nearly 5% of the dogs harbored multiple diseases.

The study emphasized the importance of preventive medications, as they can effectively safeguard our pets’ health in the face of these diseases. While preventive medications can be costly, they are the best strategy for managing our pets’ well-being. Hazelrig emphasizes that “these pathogens are common throughout the eastern United States, and the best management strategy for your pet’s health is to use preventive medications on a regular basis.”

However, accessing preventive medications requires veterinary care, which may be challenging for neglected or stray animals taken to shelters. These animals often haven’t received preventive medications in a long time, if ever. Heartworm infections, though mostly treatable with medication or surgery, can be expensive to cure and difficult to treat if left untreated for an extended period. The tick-borne bacteria found in the study also require antibiotics for treatment.

Heartworm can inflict serious damage on a dog’s heart, lungs, and other arteries if left untreated, while Lyme disease can result in loss of appetite, fatigue, lameness, and kidney damage. It is crucial for pet owners to recognize that no region is safe from these diseases’ reach. Hazlerig highlights that even in the Northeastern U.S., where heartworm is not commonly associated, cases were discovered in Maine. Similarly, exposure to the causative agent of Lyme disease was detected in Virginia. The expansion of ticks and mosquitoes’ geographical range is attributable to the changing climate.

The increasing presence of disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes should concern not just pet owners but also individuals without pets. It is worth noting that tick-borne diseases can also affect humans and cause significant health issues. Each year, more than 30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease are reported, and this number is likely an underestimate, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A collaborative study between the University of Georgia and Clemson University found a direct correlation between areas with higher rates of canine Lyme disease infection and increased human infections. “These data help us understand the distribution of these pathogens, how their distributions are changing, and where we may expect human infections to occur,” notes Michael Yabsley, a professor at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the College of Veterinary Medicine.

As climate change continues to impact our surroundings, it’s essential to be aware of the potential health risks for both our pets and ourselves. By staying informed and taking necessary preventive measures, we can better protect our beloved four-legged friends and ourselves from tick- and mosquito-borne diseases. Remember, the best offense is a good defense!

Additional Information

For more information on Lyme disease, please visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Source: University of Georgia, news release, Aug. 22, 2023


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