A tick on Oreo.

Do yourself a favor: Never look up “Lyme disease in dogs” in Google Images. It’s seriously disturbing.

I know that a handful of you are doing exactly that right now. I understand. You’re too curious not to. And now you’ve seen what can’t be unseen. You’re looking at photos of puppies with their ears filled with engorged ticks — hundreds of them. Is it Photoshopped? How does that even happen? It looks real. If it is real, those dogs definitely have Lyme disease.

Have you placed a hand over your mouth? Are you afraid you might vomit? I was.

The terrible photos nearly distracted me from my true purpose — to find images of the Lyme disease rash on dogs. I refined my search (“Lyme disease rash on dogs”) and continued to be disturbed as I viewed photos of pink circular rashes of various sizes, some with a bullseye pattern, others solid pink.

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Credit: BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY JOHN CLARKE RUSS

Why was I putting myself through such torture? Well, unfortunately, I found a tick attached to my dog, Oreo, three days ago on April 3. It seems awfully early to be dealing with ticks here in Maine. It really drives home the reality that ticks start becoming active when the temperature rises above 38 degrees, a number that I’ve stolen from tick expert Jim Dill of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Tick ID Lab.

We believe Oreo picked up the tick on April 2, during a rainy hike in Scarborough. If that’s true, then we found the tick the next morning, about 20 hours after Oreo picked it up. I was petting Oreo in the kitchen, while Derek fried some eggs, and felt the tiniest bump on his skin near his back leg, in an area I like to call his “legpit.” It felt like a tiny scab, but I took a closer look because ticks are always on my mind it seems, and there it was — a tick. It was burrowed into Oreo’s skin but not yet visibly engorged with his blood.

I’m not trying to be gross, this is just the reality of it. Ticks are unavoidably nasty critters, and they’re dangerous.

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By then, Oreo could sense something was wrong and was trying to squirm away. So Derek held onto Oreo in a bear hug (lest he run to a dark corner of the basement as he is apt to do when he’s uncomfortable) while I went upstairs in search of tweezers. Derek then parted Oreo’s short black hair, and I grasped the tick as close to Oreo’s skin as possible, then pulled steadily away from his body until it separated. The tick came free, along with quite a few of Oreo’s hairs (sorry, buddy), and I plopped it in a Tupperware for inspection.

We then searched the rest of Oreo’s body with our fingers, parting his hair, looking between toes and closely examining his ears, where ticks often hide.

“Is that… nope, just a nipple,” Derek mumbled. “Sorry, Oreo.”

My fingers ran over another bump, even smaller, near Oreo’s front left legpit. I’d found another one, but this time, it wasn’t even attached to his skin yet. I plucked it off with the tweezers and placed it in a Tupperware with the other tick, now slightly smooshed and apparently dead. It started to crawl around the container and Derek backed away.

“Do they jump?” He asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said, getting out my phone to take perhaps the creepiest video I’ve ever recorded.

I was just blowing hot air. I don’t know about tick agility. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I was right. Ticks can’t jump. They also can’t fly. (Thank God.) They’re just really good at grabbing ahold to animals (or people) as they brush by.

I took some photos, then flushed the ticks down the toilet.

I used to squish ticks out of anger, but I’ve been told I shouldn’t do that because when a tick’s body bursts, its innards might get on your skin, then into a cut and transmit a disease. It sounds improbable, but why risk it? It’s best to just drown them.

Oreo and tick #2
Oreo and tick #2

Now that they’re gone, I’m worried about the diseases they may have carried. Ticks carry a variety of diseases. These ticks looked like deer ticks (also known as blacklegged ticks) based on all the photos, which means they may very well carry Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that manifests in different ways, attacking body systems. If gone untreated, this disease can become chronic and life-threatening. Researchers are continually discovering more about Lyme and other diseases ticks carry. I simply cannot include everything here in this blog, so to learn more (and there’s a lot to learn), check out these resources:

In most cases, the deer tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted, according to the CDC. However, there have been cases reported in which Lyme disease was transmitted in less time. “Anecdotal reports tell of transmission in less than 4 hours,” according to the online resource “Learn the Facts” published by the Lyme Action Network.

Needless to say, I was worried.

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The next thing I did was check myself for ticks, with the help of my husband. Then I checked him. We were tick free, but I still entertain the idea that a tick could have crawled on us while we slept, bit us, then returned to Oreo.

It gives me the creeps. I’ve been checking my hair for days. Is this what the whole spring, summer and fall is going to be like?

A day later, I noticed a small pink solid circle on Oreo’s chest, plainly visible through his hair, which is more like peach fuzz in that area. Now, Lyme disease often causes a similar rash — circular, sometimes with a bullseye shape — around the bite area. The thing is, I found the tick far from Oreo’s chest, near the back of his leg.

I was worried, so I called the veterinary clinic we use, which will go unnamed here because I really like the pet doctors there and don’t want to put them on the spot.

Deer ticks (also known as blacklegged ticks)
Courtesy of Griffin Dill. These are deer ticks (also known as blacklegged ticks).

After explaining what happened, I asked the clinic if I should bring Oreo in to get tested for Lyme disease. They told me that they wouldn’t be able to detect Lyme until 6 weeks after the bite. They also told me that the pink circle I was seeing could be from any other insect bite, and that I should watch it to see if it grew or if Oreo was trying to itch at it. (Black fly bites often cause a red circle on dogs’ skin that people mistake for a Lyme disease rash.)

Lyme disease, in humans and dogs, is treated with an aggressive regimen of antibiotics. Many people suggest taking these antibiotics as a precaution way before you wait out the six-week period to be tested for Lyme. While other people suggest that you (and your dog) should wait for Lyme symptoms, a Lyme rash or lab results before committing to the treatment.

It really comes down to a judgment call, one that only you can make for your pet and for yourself.

It’s important to know that there are many cases in which Lyme disease does not cause a rash, or noticeable symptoms right away.

Common symptoms of Lyme disease are flu-like symptoms such as body aches, fever, fatigue and headaches. But late-stage Lyme disease symptoms are much different and varied as the disease attacks different systems of the body.

Oreo
Oreo

In dogs, symptoms are similar, though they’re obviously more difficult to detect, since dogs can’t exactly tell you how they’re feeling. Dogs may develop a fever, lameness, swelling in the joints, lethargy and a loss of appetite. If your dog isn’t really acting himself, then you have cause to be worried.

The sooner you’re treated for Lyme disease, the better. If you go too long without treatment, it could become chronic, meaning you’ll never really be rid of it.

I have a co-worker who has a close friend whose three-year-old dog died of complications caused by Lyme disease. It can be that serious.

So after just a little consideration, we’ve made an appointment to bring Oreo into the veterinary clinic this afternoon for their most effective tick deterrent topical treatment as well as a Lyme disease vaccine, an option that is fairly new and continually being improved to fight the bacteria in its many forms. The veterinarian suggested both but wasn’t pushy about it, allowing me to make my own decision.

You may disagree with my decision. Vaccines are controversial, as are topical treatments for animals. Please feel free to leave your opinions and stories in the comment section below. That’s what it’s for!

I don’t like taking medicine, as a rule, unless it’s absolutely necessary. But when it comes to ticks and Lyme disease, I’ve decided I don’t want to mess around. I take Oreo all over the state to hike with me through a variety of habitats year round — and let’s face it, three seasons out of four in Maine are “tick season” (though spring and fall are typically more “ticky” than summer). I think Oreo needs as much protection against ticks and Lyme disease as possible.

There is no effective, licensed Lyme disease vaccine for people, according to the CDC. And tick deterrents for people are limited to clothing treated with tick repellent, as well as tick repellents for the skin, many of which are made of natural materials.

This whole experience, so early in the spring, has really driven home the importance of conducting “tick checks” (checking your entire body for ticks with your eyes and hands) multiple times after every outing. Ticks are small, and they’re good at hiding.

If you’ve gone on a hike, check for ticks after, before you get in your vehicle. Then, back at home, put your clothes in the washing machine (ticks will drown) and check yourself for ticks again. And the next day, check again.

Oh — and do the same for your pets.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...