Archive for the 'Products – Flea and Tick' Category

Product Review: Fragrance-Free Dog Shampoo Bars

As a service dog partner with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error in finding a shampoo that I tolerate that also works well for my dogs. This is especially important because whenever I went anywhere, my service dog would go with me, and when we came home, we’d both need to bathe to get fragrance residues off our hair and skin.

The Bad Old Days

The only “all-natural” dog shampoo I found that was supposed to be safe for people with MCS (I bought it from a mail-order business that caters to people with MCS) turned out to be made up of numerous essential oils and reeked to high heaven. Even friends without MCS said it was like a perfume bomb. I can’t imagine someone with MCS using it safely.

I turned to the only other option I could think of — a gentle, fragrance-free human shampoo. This worked okay with Jersey. But when Gadget came along, I discovered that over time the shampoo dried out his coat, stimulating his body to secrete more oils to protect his skin. This led to a dog who had a dry AND oily coat, which caused him to smell very “doggy.” Eventually, I tried mixing fragrance-free human conditioner and shampoo, and that seemed to do the trick: his coat became softer and the oily secretions went away.

Even though these products were better than the toxic and/or fragranced dog shampoos on the market, I wondered how healthy it was for them to eat so much of it (because I gave out a lot of treats to make baths fun, so a lot of snorking treats out of the bath water took place). And sometimes my dogs have not liked the feel or smell of the products.

A Potential New Solution!

Then, a couple of months ago, I learned of fragrance-free dog shampoo bars made by a person with MCS! Barbara’s online store, Baltimore Soaps and More, sells four kinds of dog shampoo bars.

A line of 14 blocks of soap in a variety of colors.

Baltimore soaps and shampoo bars

Barbara was kind enough to send me samples of three of these (she’s out of stock of the fourth, see below), and I tried them out on Barnum.

They were

The first time I used one was to clean Barnum’s beard. Bouvier beards are nasty things. In fact, the Dutch nickname for Bouviers des Flandres is “Vuilbaard” which means “vile beard” or “dirty beard.” I used to use unscented baby wipes to try to clean his beard, but they didn’t work very well, and Barnum was uncooperative because he hated the smell.

The First Test: The Beard

So, to test out the new shampoo bars, I first let Barnum decide which soap he liked best. I held each one up to his nose, one at a time. The goat’s milk one was of no interest — he didn’t move away, but he didn’t move toward it. The oats and honey he moved toward a bit. But the shea butter one he sniffed it, then he moved in to sniff it again, and licked his lips. The clear winner! (Later, when I retested the soaps, he tried to gently take a bite of the shea butter soap.)

Two thick bars of a yellow soap with swirls on the top. The color of lemon meringue pie.

Sadie’s Choice Shampoo Bars

I discovered what worked best was to lather a rag or wash cloth with a bit of the soap and then massage it into his beard, and then once the nastiness had been removed, to rinse the rag free of soap to rinse his beard with. Barnum seemed comfortable and held still for all this, which he usually does not do when I go tugging at and mutchering his beard. The fact that he liked the smell seemed to make a big difference to him. Afterward, his kisses smelled much sweeter (without all that rotten food in his beard)!

The Real Test: The Bath!

I’ve cleaned his beard with Sadie’s Choice a couple of times since then, but the real test was for the total bath, which we did a few weeks ago.

Betsy helps me bathe Barnum. I wasn’t sure how the shampoo bar would go over with her since we’ve always used liquid shampoo before.

We wetted Barnum down with the shower sprayer as usual, and then she started rubbing the bar all over him. After a minute of lathering, Betsy said, “I like this soap much better than the shampoo.”

“Really?” I said. “Why?”

“With this you can hit the spots you need to hit with it,” she gestured to his hindquarters and tail, which she was soaping up. “I always felt like we were using more than we needed with the shampoo. We had to use so much. This is not as wasteful.”

I will add my own observations about the shampoo:

It had a pleasant smell, by which I means practically no smell, but what there was smelled clean and pleasant and not fragrance-y or chemical-y. Even fragrance-free shampoo has more of a smell than this did, to me.

Barnum seemed to like the smell and feel of it better, so he was very happy and cooperative (although the hot dog slices were a major factor, too).

It rinsed off much faster and easier than any other soap/shampoo/conditioner I’ve used on a dog before. It rinsed very clean and easy. I had not expected that.

In the time since that bath, Barnum’s coat has stayed in good condition. It didn’t get oily or smelly like used to happen when I used people shampoo, and it also is not dried out. It is crisp and soft, without a doggy smell, the way a bouv coat should be.

We give Baltimore Soaps and More doggy shampoo bars four paws up!

Barnum inside his crate, lying in "dead bug position," asleep with his head thrown back, all his legs in the air, just letting it all hang out! He is lying on a tan puffy dog bed inside the crate, and there is a red Kong against his butt.

Four Paws UP!

The Interview: Barbara, the Soap Maker

To round off this review, I thought it would be fun to interview Barbara about her soap-making business, her dog shampoo bars, what it’s like to run a small business when you live with MCS, and her life with dogs. Here it is!

Sharon: What gave you the idea to start a soap business? And how do you actually make these soaps and shampoo bars?

Barbara: I have always been a fan of wonderful bath soaps and looked forward to the thrill of opening a new bar. After being chemically injured in 2005 and developing multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), I quickly realized that my soap options were very limited and it made me a little depressed. I decided to start making my own soaps so that I wouldn’t be stuck with the same boring bars all of the time and figured that there must be other people out there who felt the same way I did!

Sharon: Why do you make soaps and shampoos without fragrances, essential oils, or chemicals?

Barbara: Fragrance oils are bad news for all involved since they are known endocrine disruptors, and the manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredients. Tell everyone you know to avoid them! Although some people with MCS tolerate essential oils, if I used them in some of my soap batches, other batches would be cross contaminated due to residue left behind in the molds plus contamination from my hands and contamination during curing and storage. I’ve had soap-making supplies shipped to me where the entire package was fragrance contaminated and unusable so I recommend that people who have sensitivities only purchase soap from a seller who doesn’t use fragrances of any kind in their business or in their home.

Soap is a chemical reaction between fats/oils and lye (sodium hydroxide) that has been dissolved in water. Once the reaction takes place you are left with true soap (as opposed synthetic detergent bars like Dove or Irish Spring) and the lye is used up. Other than lye, no other chemicals are needed for soap making. I tell people that if you are purchasing soap and notice ingredients that aren’t something you would find in your kitchen then don’t buy it because it isn’t a truly natural product. On the same note, avoid buying soap from anyone who doesn’t fully disclose the ingredients on the label.

Sharon: Who is Sadie (of Sadie’s Choice) and why did you name a shampoo after her?

Barbara: I know we aren’t supposed to pick favorites amongst our furry friends but Sadie was THE BEST DOG EVER! Our family rescued her from a shelter four hours away from our home when she was already probably 12 years old, never spayed, infested with fleas, arthritic and had a lump growing on her leg that the shelter staff feared was cancer. I talk about Sadie on my website.

Sharon: Why do you choose the ingredients you do (honey, shea butter, goat’s milk) for dog shampoo?

Barbara: It seems like so many dogs are plagued with skin irritations and so my first goal was to make dog shampoo that didn’t contribute to the problem due to added fragrances. I have made four varieties of dog shampoo bars so far and three of them each have an ingredient known for being soothing for the skin – honey/oats, shea butter, and goat’s milk. I also make a coffee shampoo for dogs because coffee in soap is a natural deodorizer and our current dog had such a funk from her time as a stray that the other bars weren’t enough to remove the odor. The Doggie Deodorizer bar has been very popular which is why I’m currently out of stock! I’m also considering making a dog shampoo with tomato juice for… you guessed it…skunk encounters!

Sharon: I had never heard of dog shampoo bars before I came across your site. Why bars instead of liquids?

Barbara: The eco reasons for shampoo bars include that you aren’t paying for a product that is mostly water and you don’t have any plastic bottle waste. Also, I have found that shampoo bars do a better job of breaking through the oils on the dog’s coat in order to get that first lather going. Simply wet your dog and rub the bar across his/her coat and you will quickly develop a rich, shampoo like lather.

Sharon: What’s it like to run a business when you have MCS?

Barbara: Being a business owner with MCS means that, like with the rest of my life, I spend a lot of time making special requests of people such as not to handle my soap-making supply orders with fragrance on their hands and not to place my vendor spot near anyone selling scented products or running generators or cooking food on grills or gas-powered appliances. I also make all of my business decisions based on my own needs and that of my MCS customers which includes using brown kraft paper with black ink for labels and using mostly brown craft paper and shreds for packaging when shipping orders.

Sharon: Since you make dog shampoo, I’m assuming you have dogs! Can you tell me about them?

Barbara: Our family likes to rescue senior dogs and so we have a fairly high turnover rate. Our current companion is a Jack Russell who lost her way three years ago during a blizzard and had four failed adoptions plus a night in doggie jail before we made her part of our family. We are used to lab mixes and so having a Jack Russell has been quite a change for us. Lucy is a better mouser than our cats!

Sharon: Do your dogs have a favorite shampoo bar? Or do you find that certain bars work better on certain types of coats or breeds?

Barbara: Lucy sleeps on our bed and so I like to bathe her once a month. I find that having a removable shower head on a long hose is a must. She doesn’t seem to have a preference – all of my soaps leave her coat clean, soft and smelling sweet and neutral.

Sharon: I read a mention of rescue dogs on your site. Are you involved in rescue?

Barbara: Since I’m raising two sons my rescue work has been limited to adopting carefully selected dogs who needed homes. Someday I picture myself fostering dogs that need rehabilitation before they can be placed for adoption.

Sharon: I read on your site that you lost two dogs to cancer. Has that experience affected your business or other parts of your life?

Barbara: Our family has lost three dogs to cancer in the past 12 years. When we adopted Sadie, some of our friends and even the workers at the shelter asked us why we would put our older son (our second son hadn’t been born yet) through possibly losing a dog soon after adoption? In our minds, we felt that showing him that a dog deserves a good home no matter how few days she may have left was an important lesson in compassion. Sadie ended up living for two years and four months after her placement with us. She was a joy for each day we had her as part of our family.

Sharon: Can people use your dog shampoo bars? I’m kind of tempted to try out that honey and oats one on myself, just for fun! Is there any reason I shouldn’t?

Barbara: Sure you can, and I won’t tell anyone! My dog shampoo bars are made of the same type of ingredients as my human bars. I would recommend trying it out BEFORE it gets covered in dog hair though.

Sharon: Do people ever ask you for dog shampoos that contain flea or tick chemicals? If so, what do you tell them?

Barbara: No one has so far. At vendor events I have a banner above my booth that reads, “Perfume Free Natural Soap” and I tell everyone who approaches that I don’t use any perfumes, dyes, or essential oils in my bars. I have, however, had numerous people ask, “But then what do you SCENT them with?”

Two bars of soap that look like slices of chocolate orange cake: a half-orange slice on top of a white frosting-looking layer on top of an orange layer between two dark chocolate-colored layers.

Chocolate Orange Soap

Sharon: Do you have some sort of culinary background? Many soaps look good enough to eat. (It makes me hungry to look at them. I have to keep reminding myself that these are not food, they are soap. Which makes me similar to my second service dog, Gadget, who was fond of eating bars of olive oil soap.)

Barbara: Thanks for the compliment. I am an experienced cook and find a lot of inspiration for my soaps from the food world.

Sharon: Anything else you’d like to add?

Barbara: Make sure you store your natural soaps in a well draining soap dish and not in the path of the shower spray in order to prolong their life. Also, one thing folks may not know is that due to curing time it takes at least a month to make each bar of soap.

Sharon: Thank you for your time!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who liked to eat soap, even if it didn’t look like food!), and Barnum, relatively clean SD/SDiT

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Product Review: Tick Removal Forceps (Updated)

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, and it’s been a terrible* year for ticks here, so I want to tell you now about absolutely the best tick removal tool I have found, which are these forceps:

Close-up of thin metal forceps that are rounded at the tip grasping a dog tick on a yellow-coated animal

Forceps removing a smallish dog tick.

I have posted about other tick-removal tools, including the Tick Key and the Tick Tool. Both of these tools work well for removing medium-to-large size ticks, such as dog ticks, or even some adult deer ticks. They are better than fingers or tweezers because

  • You don’t have to touch the tick with your fingers when you remove it
  • You won’t squish the tick (and squeeze its gut contents, which contains virulent pathogens, back into the dog, cat, or human you’re removing it from)
  • They are easy to hold and can be used by feel if you are blind or low-vision

Where these two tools fail in a major way is when dealing with tiny ticks, especially soft ticks, such as deer tick nymphs, which are both tiny and squishy. This is a big deal because most cases of Lyme disease in humans are caused by deer tick nymphs. I would be surprised if the statistics were not similar for dogs. Make no mistake, however — all ticks can cause serious disease in people and humans. Some of the the illness-causing bacteria and parasites that ticks carry include babesia, bartonella, anaplasma, ehrlichia, STARI, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and tularemia, among others. The longer a tick is attached, the more likely it will pass on disease.

I found the Tick Key to be totally useless for very small ticks and the Tick Tool to be hit-and-miss with deer tick nymphs. Often, they would slide through the slit that is intended to catch them because the slit is too large, even at its smallest point, for these tiny, squishy ticks.

The result is that I usually would have to remove such ticks with my fingers, and about half the time, I’d squish the tick and leave the mouth parts behind, still embedded. This is not ideal.

Then, in the comments of my Tick Key review, my reader Courtenay — who is a veterinary technician, as well as a dog trainer and rescuer — told me about the Tick Removal Forceps she uses. The forceps are designed and sold by Jon Vilhauer, a (recently retired) veterinarian. His site, remove-ticks.com, explains how and why he designed them, and why they are preferable to other tick-removal methods:

We have . . . what is probably the only surgical-quality instrument made specifically for tick removal.

The  new  tick forceps are:

o        Fine-tipped, so you can grasp the tick’s head without squashing its body and squeezing tick juice out all over the place

o        Curved, so you can see what you are doing and avoid stabbing your not-always-cooperative patient

o        Sturdy enough to put serious traction on deeply embedded ticks

For tick removal from dogs, cats, or humans, nothing else works as well.

The forceps are terrific! With them I have been able to remove even deer tick nymphs, without squishing them or leaving the mouth parts behind. And the price is right, too: $12.75, including shipping.

The only drawbacks I can see to the forceps are that they require more hand-eye coordination than something like the Tick Tool or Tick Key, which might be an issue for people with certain disabilities. The ends are quite pointy, so you have to be careful not to stab yourself or your animal with them. But if you have a moderately steady hand and/or a reasonably willing patient, these cannot be beat.

Jon’s website answers questions about how to remove ticks, why ticks are so hard to remove, how quickly ticks should be removed, and what happens if the head is left in. He also shows a whole bunch of other tick-removal tools and their pros and cons, so you can compare. Some of the others I was not even familiar with. I think this part of the website — about tick removal tools — is useful. I do not, however, agree with all of what he writes about tick-borne diseases, Lyme disease, and transmission of disease by ticks. For more information on these topics, I suggest reading my compendium of tick- and Lyme-related posts.

I emailed Jon before I posted this review. He said he had about 60 pairs left. I’m planning on buying at least one as a backup pair. If I can manage to get organized I’d like to do some Lyme myths posts and then do a quiz on Lyme knowledge. Whoever wins will get a pair of tick forceps. But since I never know when I will be functional enough to do this kind of thing, better buy your forceps now and don’t count on me!

UPDATE: Since so many people have ordered forceps due to this review, Jon has now ordered a new shipment, although it will take a few months to arrive. He’s concerned that he won’t be able to respond fast enough to eBay sales, especially since the number of orders has gone up so much, so he’s asked me to post the remove-ticks.com website instead. I’m very glad these tools will still be available for anyone who wants them in the future.

Four paws up for these forceps!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, SD/SDiT

Notes:

1. I have received no compensation or any other benefits or inducements to do this post. I’m posting this glowing review simply because I believe in this product and am trying to make the world a safer place for us and our animals to deal with disease-ridden ticks.

2. To read other posts at After Gadget about ticks, Lyme and other tick-borne disease in both humans and canines, visit this page.

*Terrible is kind of an understatement: Last night we found 18 ticks on Barnum. The night before we found 28. Never before have we found anything approaching those numbers. None were at all engorged, which means we had not missed them in the previous night’s search — they were new ticks, in other words.

Product Review: Tick Key

Because I have Lyme disease, and Gadget had Lyme disease, and almost every dog in my region will be exposed to Lyme disease, I pay a lot of attention to ticks. It is tick season again in New England. In the past week, I had a deer tick female attached to my upper arm (not engorged, thank goodness), Betsy had a deer tick male crawling on her, and I had a deer tick male crawl off Barnum and onto me. We have found no dog ticks, only deer ticks. Ugh.

They are each smaller than a sesame seed. Very small. It’s always frightening to find them, but it’s less frightening to not find them, of course.

This is why I have written several posts on tick checking, including how to tick-check your dog, how to tick-check humans, and a special note about tick-checking for wheelchair-using humans. In these posts I have discussed the pros and cons of removing ticks with fingers, tweezers, and special tick-removal tools. For a while, the only one I knew of was the Tick Tool Pro, a tick spoon.

Very thin, lightweight metal tool, about half the length of a popsicle stick, tapered on one end with a V-shaped opening. The length of the tool has a slight creased in the center, so that it is mildly concave. It's attached by a metal-bead key-chain to a plastic magnifying class about teh size of a penny or nickel.

This is the tick spoon we have, the Tick Tool Pro. I find the magnifying lens just gets in the way, so I remove it to use the spoon.

Overall, I have been satisfied with this implement. It is much easier and more effective to use than tweezers when it comes to removing an adult-sized deer tick or a dog tick. This is what I used to pull the tick out of my upper arm a week ago. Any deer tick is still damn small, so I was nervous; however, unlike Barnum, I am not covered with thick fur, and I definitely hold still!

When dealing with deer tick nymphs or slightly engorged deer ticks, however, the slot is too large, and with Gadget and Barnum I sometimes end up mangling the tick or leaving the head in, etc. However, even fine-tipped tweezers are worse in terms of squishing and difficulty with handling a very small (especially somewhat engorged) tick.

Thus, I was hopeful that the Tick Key, which my dear friend Karyn sent me, would work better. It does not have an opening for the tick to slide through, so I thought it might work better on nymphs. However, it’s quite big, and I was worried it would be awkward.

Flat, metallic green object that has the shape and look of a key, except where the part that would stick in a lock would go is a key-hole shaped opening, round at the base closest to where you hold the key, with a very narrow neck at the tip.

The Tick Key. Mine looks just like this, but purple. It’s actually larger than a typical key.

Last night, I got to test it out, and I’m sorry to say it was a failure. Barnum had a slightly engorged deer tick nymph on his snout — on the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. Not a fun place to try to remove a tiny tick, likely full of pathogenic microbes, with a big, purple piece of metal. Of course, Barnum’s snout is also the hairiest part of him, because even though he’s had a recent haircut, we don’t trim his face quite so dramatically as the rest of him, or he’d look ridiculous. It would also be difficult to do. So, we were working around a fair amount of hair. Also, Betsy wasn’t here, so I had someone else helping me, and Betsy normally has a very soothing effect on Barnum. Removing ticks isn’t normally a big deal for him, but pulling one off right in front of his eyes while mutchering his snout and trying to maneuver a big, new piece of equipment — he was not as compliant as I’d have liked.

But, the real problem was this: We put the key’s hole over the tick, and we sliiiiid the opening to the narrow end, and it just slid right over the tick. It failed to catch the tick in the narrow gap intended for this purpose. We tried two or three times — with Barnum increasingly losing his patience — before I gave up and pulled the tick off with my fingers. The good news was that I got the whole thing out intact. The bad news was that it looked flatter after removal, which probably means I squeezed its parasitic gut contents right into Barnum’s open skin. Not really your best-case scenario.

So, between the two implements, I prefer the tick spoon. If you are dealing with a decent-sized tick (a dog tick, for example), either one is preferable to tweezers or fingers. Also, perhaps if we’d been working on an area of his body that wasn’t so difficult — where we were mucking about right in front of his eyes — it would have gone better. I don’t know. But for a squishy deer-tick nymph, so far, I have yet to find a solution that is reliable. If you discover a tick-removal device other than these two items, or you have a great pair of tick-removing tweezers or forceps to recommend, please drop me a line, and I will test it out!

Update: Much better than either the tick key or the tick spoon, are the tick removal forceps, which can remove any size or type of tick without squeezing out the gut contents. Tick forceps review is here.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum, hopefully tick-free SDiT

How to Tick Check Yourself

Or, Humans Get Tick-Borne Disease, too!

Did you think that because the weather is getting cooler, it’s not tick season anymore? If so, you’d be wrong. In fact, where I live, the worst times of year for ticks are the spring (usually April through June) and the fall (usually October and November). In fact, after our midsummer lull of no ticks, last night I pulled one off my shoulder.

As I’ve said before, this is also not just a Northeastern United States issue. No sooner had I posted my instructive post on how to tick-check your dog, that I stumbled across a Southern blogger who is unintentionally misinforming her readership by saying, “Good news: if you live below the Mason Dixon line there is a relatively low risk of Lyme Disease. Y’all can breathe easy.”

Oh dear. The many, many people I know with Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections who live in Florida, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia could tell her it ain’t so. (One of the foremost Lyme doctors in the world is in North Carolina, and I know a slew of Lymies in the Virginia/DC area.)

As requested by various readers and friends, here is my how-to guide on tick-checking YOURSELF! (And your kids or family members, etc.)

As I’ve said in other posts on Lyme disease, it is best to check yourself once a day, every day that the ground is not completely covered in snow — regardless of where you live.

If you are too sick to handle that, try to check yourself every day that you go outside (even if it’s just into your yard, since most cases of Lyme transmission are from ticks picked up in one’s own yard) or if you have dogs, cats, or other animals that go outside and then come back in. If you are a wheelchair user, please refer to my post on when wheelies should tick-check themselves, as it’s different than for walkies.

Checking yourself for ticks is usually easier than checking your dog. For example, you don’t have to give yourself treats to allow yourself to handle your paws hands. There’s also less fur to search through.

Ticks will attach anywhere, so it’s important to check the whole body. That said, there are some areas they seem to prefer to attach, and even more importantly, where they might go longer undetected. These are areas that provide some protection or cover because they are in skin folds or creases or under hair, including

  • Between the toes
  • Behind the knees
  • In the groin
  • In the naval (belly button)
  • Under the breasts
  • In the armpits
  • Behind the ears
  • At the nape of the neck
  • On the scalp/under the hair

But, they can be anywhere. For example, the three ticks I’ve pulled off myself this year were on my scalp (the top of my head), at the nap of my neck (also scalp, because it was under my hair line), and on my inner thigh. In each case, these were dog ticks, not deer ticks, and they had been attached three hours or less.

Members of my household have found ticks on themselves or loved ones on their forearms, calves, backs, shoulders — just about anywhere. In fact, last night I found a deer tick attached to my upper arm/shoulder area. I had not been out of the house that day or the previous one, so it must have been carried in on the dog, who spends a fair amount of time in contact with me or on my bed.

In an ideal world, we’d all have a tick-checking partner to examine areas that are hard to see ourselves, and for whom we could return the favor. We’d also all be sighted, have range of motion, strength, and flexibility in our bodies and sensitivity in our hands. However, this is not always possible. So, you do the best you can.

As with dogs, it’s good to make this a habit. Setting a daily routine that follows a particular time of day or activity, and that follows a familiar path along the body can help you keep track of what’s been checked and what hasn’t. Use what works for you. I’ll give my household as an example.

Tick-Checking with Two People

We do nightly checks before bed. First, we turn on all the lights, so it’s as bright as possible. Betsy and I check the dog. She likes to check him first, in case any ticks crawl off of him and onto us. I don’t feel as strongly about it, because ticks don’t usually move very fast. It can be useful to put down a light-colored sheet while you check your furry household members, because a tick will show up more obviously there if it is crawling toward you.

Then, we do us. It’s best to get naked to tick check. You should check your clothing, inside and out, either before or after you check your body.

Because of my disabilities, we do our tick-checks on the bed. We start at the feet and work up. I extend my legs, and she looks between each toe on my right foot, then examines the top and sides of the leg. She lifts my leg in the air and examines the underside. Then, the same on the left foot and leg. Then the creases where my thighs meet my abdomen (ticks like creases and skin folds). I spread out my pubic hair so she can see under/through it, and also my labia (more skin folds). I don’t happen to know of women finding ticks on their genitals, but I know two men who have found them on their testicles, so I see no reason the same couldn’t happen with female “parts.”

Then we check my belly button, and I lift each breast, one at a time to check under there. (I have found ticks under others’ breasts before — it’s warm, moist, and hidden; ticks seem to like that.) Then my right armpit (and you should spread the hair around if you have thick hair there) and my arms, both sides. The same on my left underarm and arm.

I turn, and she looks at my back and my buttocks. We also check the external anus.

We spend probably the most time on the scalp, because hair obscures ticks, and because ticks like the scalp. If you have long hair, it’s important to lift it to check the neck, especially the nape of the neck.I lean forward with my face on a pillow. Because I have long hair now, Betsy starts on one side (checking in the ear and behind it), and sections the hair, feeling and looking all along one row, from the neck to the forehead. Then the next row, working her way like that to the other ear and side of head.

Since Betsy’s hair is very short, my job is easier. I start at the nape of her neck, pulling against the grain of the hair, using my fingertips along the scalp. I am feeling for any bumps or unusual protrusions while also looking at her scalp as the hair is moved. Checking ears, sideburns, etc., is important. I should add that although I’ve never tick-checked a man, if someone has a mustache or beard, it’s important for them to run their fingers through it and feel all their face and neck skin to make sure nothing is hiding under it.

If you are able to stand and/or sit up, you can make a lot of this go faster and easier by stripping and standing with your back to your partner. They can check your back, buttocks, anus, and backs of your legs. Then you turn, and they check the fronts and sides of your legs, abdomen, belly, genitals (if you’re male), breasts (including underneath), underarms, and all sides of your arms.

Then you can sit down to check between toes, genitals (if female), and head and scalp.

Checking Yourself, By Yourself

There are times Betsy or I have to check ourselves on our own. Here’s how we do it.

Betsy stands at a wall mirror. She checks all the parts of her body she can see herself, then turns with her back to the mirror to check her back and other areas she can’t see. Then she runs her hands over any areas she can’t see, such as back of legs and behind knees, etc. This is also how she does her hair — running her fingers over every part of her scalp.

I check myself in bed. The most important checking is tactile — I run my hands over every place I can touch on my body. When I have found ticks attached to myself, it has almost always been my fingers that discovered them before my eyes had any clue.

For any places I can’t reach well, or to double-check, I use a hand mirror — such as spreading my toes as much as I can with a mirror reflecting the bottom of my feet. This is also how I check the backs of my legs, under my breasts, and my groin and anus.

For my back, which I cannot touch all over, I use two mirrors — looking into one, with the other behind me. I use most of my energy to feel my scalp. You can think of it as a methodical scalp massage, moving your fingers all over your scalp as if you were lathering shampoo, and also feeling behind your ears.

The more you get used to feeling or seeing every mole, bump, or irregularity of your skin, the easier it will be to rest assured that you will know a tick when you come across one. If you are checking yourself, alone, and you ever feel something suspicious that you can’t get a good look at, find someone — anyone — and have them look at it or feel it and/or describe it. You may feel a bit embarrassed, but some awkwardness with a friend, roommate, or neighbor is worth preventing a tick-borne disease!

Sometimes I find it hard to motivate myself to tick check, even though — and possibly because — I know how serious it can be to have a tick attached to me. In these cases, I fall back on some of my positive reinforcement training and promise myself something enjoyable after — a square of chocolate, a movie from Netflix, a book on tape, a cuddle with the dog. Whatever makes it easier for you to begin and to be as consistent as possible — reward yourself and make it easier the next time around.

If you do find a tick, remove it just as you would from your dog. Get your tick spoon or tick key ready.

Very thin, lightweight metal tool, about half the length of a popsicle stick, tapered on one end with a V-shaped opening. The length of the tool has a slight creased in the center, so that it is mildly concave. It's attached by a metal-bead key-chain to a plastic magnifying class about teh size of a penny or nickel.

This is the tick spoon we have. I find it easiest to use if I remove the magnifying glass, as that just tends to get in the way.

I have used the tick spoon many times. I also have a tick key, but haven’t used it yet. It wasn’t handy last night when I found the tick on my shoulder, but I know where it is now, and I’ll try it on the next one I find.

Flat, metallic green object that has the shape and look of a key, except where the part that would stick in a lock would go is a key-hole shaped opening, round at the base closest to where you hold the key, with a very narrow neck at the tip.

The tick key. I haven't used mine yet, but from the video I saw at the link above, I think it is well-designed.

Before you do anything, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself. You want to act with care and deliberation.

Slide the tick key or spoon between the tick’s body and your skin, until the narrowest slit of the implement is wedged against where the tick’s mouth parts are attached. Slowly and deliberately pull back and up. You will feel a bit of a tug on your skin, as if you were pulling a burr off of your skin. When the tick comes from, hopefully you will see a tiny bit of skin in its mouth parts, which means you got it all and likely didn’t squish its stomach contents under your skin by pulling or squeezing its body. (Try to avoid that.) If it’s kicking and moving around, that is also a sign that you pulled it out whole and unmangled; you actually don’t want to scare or annoy or stress the tick, as that makes it more likely to regurgitate possibly pathogenic microbes into you due to its panic.

After you have removed the tick, it’s a good idea seal it in a zip-loc baggy. This way, if you decide to have it tested to see if it was carrying diseases, it will be in the best condition for scientists to examine. I usually double- or triple-bag the tick, because I don’t want to run the risk it could escape.

Wipe the area where the tick was attached with a disinfectant, such as rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or another cleanser. I also use a skin marker to make a circle around the site. That way, if a rash or any other skin abnormalities appear, I will know if they’re at the site of the bite or not.

If the tick is completely flat and you are sure it was only attached a very brief time, chances are good it has not passed on any diseases. However, if it is at all engorged and/or if you’re uncertain how long it was attached, it’s a good idea to speak to or see a doctor right away. An immediate course of a week of doxycycline (an antibiotic), has been shown to reduce the rates of Lyme in people who are bitten by deer ticks.

Wishing you all a safe, healthy, tick-free autumn!

– Sharon, the must of Gadget, and Barnum, SDiT

Good, Clean Fun: Compulsion-Free Bath

I’ve written before about how I train my dogs to enjoy baths. I used treats, including “bobbing for biscuits” to make baths more enjoyable. With training, both Jersey and Gadget were accustomed to get in the shower with me and even to help with the rinsing aspect of the job by lying down in the water.

They both had frequent baths because any time we went somewhere that involved a chemical exposure — to a store, a doctor’s appointment, or anywhere we were around people — it was necessary for me to shower and change my clothes when I got home, and to bathe my dog, as well. The chemical residues in their hair was no more tolerable for me than those on my own skin, hair, or clothing.

However, I must admit that Jersey and Gadget didn’t so much enjoy baths as put up with them. They enjoyed the treats that I used to make bath time more pleasant, but they still didn’t relish the overall experience. And while there was no struggle and physical force involved, there was an element of psychological compulsion. They were not offering behaviors; they were complying with cues because they knew there really was no other option.

Until today, I thought that bathing Barnum was always going to be more difficult and unpleasant than training Jersey or Gadget. Barnum is not one to submit just because I am the human and I say so. He had several baths when he was a little puppy, and they were far from fun and relaxing for anyone involved. The problem was that we did not have the opportunity to build up slowly and positively to happy bath experiences.

Barnum had been shampooed repeatedly, and recently, with scented dog shampoo before we brought him home. The fragrance chemicals made me very sick, so we had to wash him often. Further, because I was doing my best to “super-socialize” him in his first 16 weeks of life, he went to a lot of smelly places (including puppy kindergarten) that required post-adventure scrub-downs.

Barnum After His First Bath, First Night Home

Barnum recovers from his first bath after his looong trip.

[Photo description: Barnum as a tiny puppy, at eight-and-a-half weeks old, still damp from his first bath. He sits at the entrance to his crate, looking a little dazed. He is black with ringlets of fur, with the characteristic big paws and slightly cloudy eyes of a young puppy. Sharon’s hand is in front of his mouth, feeding him a morsel. Her hand is almost as big as his head!]

It took months of bathing to get the scented shampoo out of his coat. In fact, it was not until we gave him his first severe haircut and cut off all the hair that had absorbed the scented stuff that I could put my face to his without sore throats, headaches, coughing, and my face turning beet-red.

Inevitably, these baths were stressful affairs. I was being made sick by the increased offgassing of the fumes when his hair got wet. I had to wear gloves and a carbon filter mask during the process, and we tried to make it as quick as possible. I tried to bribe and/or sooth him with treats, but he was having none of it. He didn’t want cheese or hot dogs or broccoli, he wanted out. Barnum was completely pissed off about being bathed against his will, and he kicked, flailed, scratched, and shrieked the whole time.

So, that was the background I had to work with to train Barnum that baths were actually terrific fun. I doubted I’d ever succeed. Between the numerous negative experiences I had to counteract and the fact that we didn’t get a lot of bathing practice, I thought we were at a severe disadvantage.

I was wrong. The fact that Barnum had few baths while I’ve been training him to enjoy being in the tub has meant that I wasn’t working against myself.

I mentioned in one of my “toilet training” posts that I started with tossing treats into the tub whenever Barnum followed me into the bathroom. The first unexpected hurdle was, well, literally a hurdle: Barnum couldn’t figure out how to jump in the tub.

He used to know how to jump in the tub, so I think it was more of a “mental block” than anything — an approach/avoidance conflict. He wanted the treats in the tub, but he was anxious about being in the tub. I spent a couple of weeks — many, many sessions — simply shaping him to jump in the tub: one paw on, two paws on, hind foot raised, etc. Finally, he learned to jump in the tub, and I clicked/treated for jumping in and out, attaching the cues to the behaviors as we went.

I faded the c/t from jumping out pretty quickly and focused on c/t for being in the tub. I treated it mostly like the shaping exercise for “Go to Mat” in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. I lured the beginning of a sit, and from there, shaped for sitting and then lying down. Over time I shaped for longer periods of lying down and for relaxed body posture while lying down.

Sometimes, instead of clicking (operant conditioning), I used classical conditioning — just tossing treats between his paws while he was lying down so he could stay relaxed and simply associate being in the tub with happy things. Eventually, whenever I went into that bathroom, he’d jump in the tub and wait to be clicked. Soon, he began offering behaviors: Being in the tub not good enough? What if I sit? What if I down?

Once he was truly relaxed lying in the tub for extended periods, I started adding elements that he’d associate with baths, such as the ventilation fan being on, grabbing the hose (hand-held shower), opening and shutting the drain, rubbing him all over with my hand (but no soap or water) to mimic being shampooed, and moving the shower head over his body (without the water turned on).

These environmental cues were mostly visual, auditory, or tactile — my body position as I leaned over him to rub him; the sound of the metal shower hose clanging against the fiberglass tub, etc. I clicked for staying in position and staying relaxed, and also continued to toss treats without clicking just to add classical conditioning to the mix. Also, sometimes it was too hard to perform this physically exhausting maneuvers and also time my clicks properly, so it was easier just to toss treats or use a verbal marker.

Finally, I started adding water. The way I’d want to add water — and the way I’d suggest to anyone else — is to let a tiny dribble into the tub of lukewarm water. Unfortunately, my faucet is very strange. It’s a knob, and you adjust the temperature by how far you turn it (turn it a little, and the water is cold; turn it all the way, and it’s scorching). But, unless you want very cold water, there is no way to start with a trickle, then work up to a stream, then full-blast. Since ice-cold water can be quite aversive, this was a challenge to train.

So, I would turn the knob just enough for the sound of water to start, and turn it off again before any water actually hit the tub. Or sometimes, after it was off, a dribble would come in. It took several sessions for Barnum to stay truly relaxed at the sound of the water starting.

Eventually, I was able to get water going in the hose and spray it at the drain, so it wasn’t hitting him, and he was okay with that. But we had not yet gotten to the point where he would stay, relaxed in the tub, lying down, beyond his front paws getting wet. I thought we still had a long way to go.

This is a dog who refuses to walk through puddles. He likes to drink water from the garden hose, and he will run into the pond and moving streams, but he really does not like to get his feet wet unless it’s part of some fun activity. Even on scorching-hot days, he refuses to wade in the kiddie pool in the yard.

Then, a few days ago, Betsy and I were tick-checking Barnum, and we saw something we thought might be a flea running through his hair. We didn’t find any evidence of flea bites or flea dirt, but we decided we better bathe him, just to be on the safe side. Also, he really needed a bath.

I got together the treats and went and sat in the bathroom. Even though I’d tried so hard to simulate all the “forerunners to bath” cues in our training — getting the dog shampoo, turning on the fan, taking off my pants, etc., Barnum knew it was bath time! I was surprised. He is so sensitive to environmental cues; he’s really quite a genius at it.

But I just stayed calm and ignored him, and eventually he decided, “Hey, maybe this is a training session!” So he hopped into the tub! I said the cue while he was in the air, clicked and treated when he was in the tub, and we did a few more cued “in-and-outs.”

He sat, he downed, I kept c/t (I actually was using a verbal marker — not enough hands to hold a clicker) for the things we usually did. I stoppered the tub, I turned on the water, pointing the spray away from him. He stayed in the tub!

“Well,” I thought, “I’ll just see how far I can take this until Betsy gets here to help.”

I started spraying his lower legs, figuring that would be less likely to trigger a jump out of the tub than if I went for his back or butt or head. He stayed in the tub, eagerly participating in this “training session.” Soon, I had all of his legs, including feet, sprayed down and was moving up to his belly.

I yelled for Betsy and she came in. “He doesn’t know it’s a bath!” I told her. “He thinks this is a training session! Don’t let on that it’s a bath!”

We did the entire bath without any holding, demanding, gripping, or body blocking! He was smiling and enjoying himself. It was completely unlike any other dog bathing experience I’ve had. There were two times he decided the training session was going in a way he didn’t like, and he jumped out (soaking the floor). We just waited.

He paced and dithered. He wanted to keep getting the treats! He wanted the training to continue, but now the tub was half-full of water. Yet, training won out, and he — on his own — jumped back into the water. This happened twice! I did not touch him or cue him until he had already decided he wanted back in.

It was the fastest bath we’ve ever done! The most remarkable part of it, for me, was observing his body language. His tail was up and sometimes gently wagging. His head was up. His mouth was relaxed and smiley. His eyes were sparkling. He did not have that slumped, defeated look I have come to associate with any dog in a tub. He actually started playing in the water near the end — scratching at the tub drain (which I discouraged) and bobbing for treats, sticking his nose under the stream of water.

One of the youtube channels I subscribe to is MultiAnimalCrackers. She clicker trains her own dogs, horses, donkeys, and other animals. She says all the animals are trained “at liberty,” which means that they offer behaviors willingly; they are never forced to do a behavior they don’t want to. Bathing Barnum “at liberty,” though it did mean a soaking-wet floor from the two times he jumped out and we had to wait for him to decide to jump back in, was a remarkable experience.

I’ll post a photo essay separately of Barnum in the bathtub, just for kicks.

It’s only been a decade. I think I’m starting to get this clicker training thing now.

Give me liberty, or and give me bath!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (mooo!), and Barnum, sparkling clean SDiT

P.S. I am a finalist in today’s 5 Minute Fiction challenge again. I told you I was addicted! It’s a great group of finalist stories this time. I like them all. Please read, enjoy, and vote! (Preferably for me, but whichever one you like best, really.)

How to Tick Check Your Dog (even if he’s big, black, and hairy)

I’ve been intending to write this post for over a year. There’s always something more pressing. However, my friend Karyn recently learned that her assistance dog, Thane, has Lyme. I’m very sad about this, although I take some comfort in knowing that my advocacy about Lyme occurring everywhere was part of the reason she got her dog tested, and that now he can be treated. Hopefully this post will prevent more dogs from getting tick-borne diseases.

Ever since I wrote a long, detailed post about canine Lyme disease for Lyme Disease Awareness Month in May 2010 stressing the importance of thoroughly tick checking your dog every day of the spring, summer, and fall, people have been asking me, “How do you do it?”

If you only want a very cursory explanation of how to tick-check, there is a new site devoted to ticks, dogs, and tick-borne disease in dogs, called DogsandTicks.com. The tick-checking information is on the disease-prevention page; better than nothing, I suppose, but I fear it will give people the impression that they are doing a thorough job when you’re not. The site also includes photos of ticks, how to remove ticks, information on various tick-borne diseases, and a FAQ.

If you want more detailed instructions on tick-checking your dog, read on!

People with dark-colored dogs, and long-haired dogs have expressed particular concern to me about how the heck to search an entire dog — especially if it’s a big dog. Having owned three consecutive large, dark, long-haired dogs (bouviers des Flandres), I know where they’re coming from.

I didn’t used to do systematic daily tick-checks until I got Lyme disease in 2007. That seriously changed my perspective on tick vigilance, particularly when my service dog, Gadget, too, turned out to have chronic Lyme.

Betsy and I thoroughly tick-checked Gadget (until he died, two years ago), every day. We carry on the tradition with Barnum, my one-and-a-half year-old puppy and service-dog-in-training.

There are certainly other things I’d rather be doing with the time and energy that go into tick-checking, but I’ve come to see it as required upkeep, like feeding or walking him. There are also a few side benefits that I’ll mention in my discussion.

Note: My tick-checking description includes things that are helpful to me, such as having an extra person, using my hands, good lighting, etc. I realize that if you are single, or blind, or don’t have good sensation in your fingertips you’ll need to modify how you check. It is definitely possible to tick-check by yourself (I do it often), as well as to do an effective job if you have limited vision or use of your hands. By creating a routine and becoming familiar with your dog’s normal bumps (whisker bumps, bug bites, nipples, warts and pimples), you will become much more able to identify ticks.

Please do not think that using “spot-on” flea and tick products (Frontline Plus, Advantix, etc.), makes tick checking unnecessary. This is not true. I have written in other posts that these products have several major drawbacks, including that they can cause chemical injury to people or animals sensitive to them. However, whether you choose to use them or not, they are not perfect, and your dog can still carry ticks. Consider:

  1. They do not repel or prevent ticks from climbing on and attaching; the ticks need to drink your dog’s blood before the product kills them. Ticks can feed on your dog for several hours before they die and fall off.
  2. These products are far more effective against fleas than ticks. There really is no product that is as effective against ticks as it is against fleas. They are hardy, adaptive, tough little bugs. Some are more effective against ticks than others, such as Advantix or Revolution. However, I recently spoke with Barnum’s breeder, who is an ER vet, and she told me that she would never put Revolution on her dogs, because she has seen so many serious adverse reactions to it in the ER. Revolution is the brand more vets in high-incidence areas like mine are suggesting as being more effective against ticks.
  3. Ticks evolve faster than humans can create poisons to kill them. Many vets and dog owners are reporting that products that used to be effective against ticks have lost their efficacy. This is particularly true in high-density tick areas.

So, choose whether or not to use these products, but don’t rely on them to make tick-checking unnecessary.

How about a summer hairdo?

If you have a long-haired dog that has hair instead of fur (such as a poodle or a bouvier), consider giving them a radical haircut in the spring and keeping it short through the fall. It is much easier to tick check a short coat than a long one.

Exhibit A: Gadget

Before . . .

Gadget, a gray brindle bouvier, stands on the patchy brown spring lawn. His hair is very long and shaggy, and he looks a lot like an Old English Sheepdog in terms of the amount of fur.

We let Gadget’s coat grow out in the winter.

. . . and After:

We fell asleep together

Gadget, freshly shorn, falls asleep with me after we’ve both been tick-checked.

Exhibit B: Barnum

Before . . .

Barnum lies on the bathroom floor. His coat is very long and shaggy and doesn't look well-groomed. He appears black except for a spot of white on his chin.

Yes, I know he looks disreputable here, but he’d just come in from the rain AND we were struggling with the wrong tools for too much coat!

. . . and After!

Barnum lies on a pale hardwood floor. He is close-cropped all over except for his face, which still has a bit of beard and fullness around the eyes. His brindling is very obvious, silver, white, gray, and black.

So sleek! And you can see all his lovely brindling this way, too! (Yeah, his legs and paws needed touch-ups. We did those another time.)

Barnum’s coat tends toward the texture, thickness, and consistency of thick, shag, wall-to-wall carpeting. And he’s black. It’s a gorgeous coat that’s a nightmare to check.

We always try to keep a short coat during tick season. It really makes a big difference. I know he doesn’t look as handsome, but I’d rather he’s healthy than gorgeous (and he’s adorable either way, of course). I’m sure bouvier aficionados gasp with horror at these extreme haircuts, but these are working dogs, not show dogs, and I have to do what works for me and for their health.

If you don’t have MCS and can afford it, you can get your dog professionally groomed, and then they will look a lot better than my dogs do! But, since groomers use a lot of scented products in their salons, that’s never been an option for me.

If you have a long-coated dog with fur (a “normal” long-haired dog), or a light-skinned dog (a pale-colored dog or one with a pink nose), or a dog that’s in the direct sunlight a lot, you might not want to cut down the coat due to issues of sunburn or skin cancer in the case of light-skinned dogs or due to problems with coat regrowth for typical-coated shedding dogs.

A good idea instead is to remove a lot of the bulk of the coat, use stripping tools. I am by no means a grooming expert — I only do what I have to to keep my service dog healthy and looking decent. I use the Mat Breaker and the Mars Coat King. If you want more information on this topic, ask a groomer or try a grooming forum online. Basically, the goal is to preserve the length for sun protection and the general form of the coat, but to thin/debulk the coat to keep your dog cooler as well as helping you feel the skin for ticks.

Lights, Blanket, Tick-Spoon!

Although it’s not known how long it takes for ticks to pass on Lyme and other tick-borne diseases (TBDs) — and different diseases are said to take differing lengths of time. A conservative estimate is that 24 hours is definitely enough time to pass on Lyme, while most other TBDs take less time. Rocky Mountain Spotted fever can be passed in just five hours. (I personally think that the 24-hour cut-off mark on Lyme is iffy.) Therefore, it’s important that you check at least daily, if at all possible.

It’s a good idea to create a routine, including what time of day you do tick-checking. This will help you remember to do it and will also make your dog more likely to accept it, because dogs usually find routine soothing.

Betsy and I like to tick-check everyone before bed, because it’s a time we’re most likely to both be available, and that way we’re not giving the ticks several uninterrupted hours of feeding during the night. But, if you’re a morning person, and that’s when you have the time, do it then. Or on your lunch break. If you miss your regular time, try to squeeze in a tick-check as soon as possible. Don’t give up in despair if you miss a day. This is an ongoing health maintenance routine, like brushing teeth or the coat. You do the best you can.

Part of the routine should be getting set up so that when you do find a tick, you have what you need. Before we start, I get something soft to sit on (because we usually check Barnum on the bathroom floor, and sitting on the hard, cold floor is too painful for me), our jar with hydrogen peroxide that we put the ticks into, our tick spoon (pictured below), treats, alcohol prep pads, and a pair of small, curved, blunt-tipped scissors that I use for grooming touch-ups on his paws and legs, particularly trimming the fur between his toes, which otherwise mats terribly. (UPDATE: I now use a much better tool for removing ticks, which are Tick Removal Forceps.)

Very thin, lightweight metal tool, about half the length of a popsicle stick, tapered on one end with a V-shaped opening. The length of the tool has a slight creased in the center, so that it is mildly concave. It's attached by a metal-bead key-chain to a plastic magnifying class about teh size of a penny or nickel.

This is the tick spoon we have. I find it easiest to use if I remove the magnifying glass, as it gets in my way.

On days when I’m too sick to work on the bathroom floor, we put a light-colored sheet down on my bed, and check Barnum on my bed. A major consideration for your locale is where the best lighting is. We turn on all the lights in my room right before we start the check. While you mostly use your hands to find ticks, it really helps if, once you have found one, if you can see what you’re doing.

The Side-Benefits to Tick Checking

Every person and dog is different, so how you go about the job will depend on what works for both of you. For example, Gadget knew as soon as the sheet went over the bed at night that it was “dog cuddling time,” and he’d jump up and lie down on his side and be super-relaxed. Since Gadget let me have my way with him, I usually started with his paws, just because they were an obvious starting point and therefore an easy way for me to be methodical: First the right, front foot, then all the way up to the elbow and armpit. Then the left front and up, then the right hind foot, etc.

With Barnum, because he’s more touchy about his paws and likes to start by sitting or standing and facing me (often licking my chin), I take a different approach. He enjoys having his face rubbed, so I do his whole head very thoroughly first, and when he’s nice and relaxed, I move to the legs and paws. (This is also helpful because most of the ticks I find on him are on his head and front legs and chest, so I am more apt to get them when I am at my freshest; my body and mind are not always at their best by the time I’m done.) He is getting more used to the routine now and has started to relax into lying down as we proceed.

If your dog is not totally comfortable or compliant with being touched all over, I have three suggestions, which you can combine.

The first is to follow Sue Ailsby’s “handling” instructions from Level 2 of the original Training Levels. (Scroll down to find “Handling.” The behaviors are listed in alphabetical order, so it’s below “Go to Mat.”) This slow approach really focuses you on making sure your dog is not just tolerating touch, but actually relaxing into it and enjoying it.

The second suggestion is a tip I got from another partner-trainer I met on the Level’s list. She taught her goldendoodle the names of all his various body parts (I hinted at this practice in this previous post). This can be handy at the vet or whenever you need to check a certain part. If it’s possible, the dog can offer you the part (chin, foot, etc.). However, even when the dog can’t actually present the part, by teaching him the name, he will know what’s coming and not feel “ambushed” when you — or someone else — suddenly grabs that part. For Barnum, the parts that it’s been most helpful for him to learn are “foot” (for the front paws), “hind” (for rear paws), “ear,” “lips,” and “tail.”

To teach the parts, just say the name you’ve chosen as you handle it, every time. You might want to reinforce the learning with a tidbit for relaxing into your touch or holding still upon hearing the word.

The third is if you have a squirmy puppy or other dog who is just too excited to hold still, you can use the bio-feedback exercises from Control Unleashed. This information was a godsend for Betsy and me when Barnum was a puppy who could not hold still for an instant — or so we thought. I had been dubious that I’d be able to click for such fleeting behaviors as blinking, but it really worked. I clicked and treated for eye blinks, soft/sleepy eyes, yawning, lip-licking, exhaling/sighing, lying down, any relaxed body posture, etc. I encouraged these behaviors by blinking, giving him sleepy eyes, yawning, lip-licking, exhaling, etc. We would start out with a wriggly puppy bouncing all over, and end up with him lying on his side!

Whatever you do, try to set up a routine that is as comfortable and pleasant as possible. If you and your dog like music, put on some music. If you’re most comfortable with a grooming table or bed, use those.

That’s because two side-benefits of daily tick-checking are:

  1. A good way to monitor your dog’s health. If you are familiar with every lump and bump, when a new one arises, you will know. Since you need to check your dog’s lips, you will also notice your dog’s teeth, gums, breath, and other indicators of health. On the other end, checking the anus can show you if there is poop that needs to be cleaned away or anal glands to be expressed, etc. I often use tick-checking time to trim the hair between toe pads that otherwise gets matted very easily.
  2. If you work at making sure this is a very familiar, enjoyable experience, your dog will come to view it as a treat. We include a lot of massaging of favorite parts (back of the neck, behind the ears, front of the chest), sweet-talking, and treats. If your dog gets over excited by treats, you might not want to use them, or use low-value treats. The picture above of Gadget sleeping between my legs really was taken immediately after a tick check, when we were both so relaxed, we fell asleep (and Betsy took the picture without me knowing it until later).

It used to be that we couldn’t get Barnum to lie down and relax for his tick check. However, after over a year of handling practice and lots of treats, behold a recent tick check. First, I check his ears. . . .

Sharon leans over Barnum, who is lying on the bed, his eyes shut, head resting between his paws. Sharon is holding one of Barnum's long ears in each hand, rubbing the flaps between her fingers.

His ears are his most sensitive body part, too!

Then Betsy checks his back and sides. . . .

Barnum lying on the bed on his right side. His right foreleg is stretched way out from under his head, his eyes are closed, and his head looks very floppy and relaxed. His left foreleg is stretched out lazily in the other direction. Only Betsy's arms are visible, one hand on Barnum's ribs, the other on the back of his neck.

“Ah, nobody gives a neck massage like mommy Betsy. . . . Zzz.”

The tick check: Feel your way. . .

Here’s how to actually conduct the check.

As to where to start, that’s up to you. If you want to start with the places you’re most likely to find ticks, that is the head, especially the ears (inside and out), then the whole rest of the head, including eyelids, eyebrows, cheeks, top of the head, chin, and lips. Then the neck (take off the collar so you don’t miss anywhere), the chest, shoulders, armpits, front legs (including between the toes), then back legs.

Or, if you want to work in a more orderly fashion, here’s how I usually do it:

Starting with the feet (if your dog is amenable), put your fingers between each toe (I do forefinger under and thumb over the webbing of the foot) and feel for bumps. You are checking for ticks between the toes on the underside of the paw as well as on the furred side, above. Likewise between the toes and the “heel” pad. A lot of the time, I pull out burrs, sap, etc., under the feet and between toes, or trim out mats.

If I feel anything there that I think is a tick, I have found it impossible, even with a docile dog, to use tweezers or a tick spoon in that location — there’s just not space to angle. Instead, find where the tick is attached (where its mouth parts disappear under the skin), grasp there — using your best fingernails, if that’s an option — and pull it slowly and steadily until you have it (and whatever hair came along) out of reach.

I’ll get to disposal of ticks and tick spoons, etc., after explaining how to check.

Feel the top of the foot and heel, too, and then work your way up the leg, running thumbs and fingertips up the skin, against the grain of the fur. I use an up-and-down motion sort of “massaging” or “scouring”with my fingertips to make sure I’m feeling beneath the fur to the skin, and covering all areas. Make sure to get your fingers in the indentations and grooves between the bones.

Definitely check the elbow and armpit. Lift the leg forward slightly to see the underside of the joint, if possible.

Then you can do the rear feet and legs the same way — checking between the toes and moving up the leg. While you’re back there, remember to feel the inner leg and groin, and in males, the penis and testicles. (It’s not common, but I have found ticks on the penis — gross!)

Here is where you will probably mistake a nipple for a tick, because there is a pair on either side of the penis, which is not where humans are used to thinking of nipples spending their time. Everyone who’s ever checked one of my male dogs has made this mistake. It’s very easy to do! If you’re not sure if it’s a tick, check for a similar bump further down, along the milk-line, or across the way, on the other side. If there is another little dark bump parallel to it, it is probably a nipple! Taking a good, close look helps, too. Look for legs! (Ticks have legs. Nipples don’t.) Also, over time you will get used to where each nipple is and how it feels. Don’t try to pull them off — the dogs don’t like it! (That’s one way to tell, if you’re uncertain if it’s a nipple or a tick, don’t use tweezers or a tick spoon! Grab with your fingers and pull gently, if the dog objects, it’s probably a nipple!)

Start at the base of the tail, and feel there. (This is where I save some time — not much tail on a bouvier!) Check the tail much like it’s a leg, feeling along the whole length. Now, the fun part: Lift the tail and examine the anus. Sometimes you have to run your finger around it if you can’t see it well. If you have a furry dog, you might have to trim the fur. If you’re squeamish, use medical exam gloves. We have found ticks on the anus. Truly gross. Throw out the gloves or wash your hands, then continue!

Ears, neck, and head are very important. Feel the entire ear, inside and out, and also get a really good look inside the ear. I use the opposing finger and thumb, again, for both sides, doing the entire ear. I also put my finger into the external ear canal (not deep!) because sometimes they hide in the ridges there. Rub with your fingers, like you were shampooing your scalp, the whole head and face. Check the lips, including between nose and lips, and look at the eyelids and eyebrows. (Just this year, I have found ticks on Barnum’s eyelid — right next to his eye — three times.)

Take off the collar to check the neck and chest, again, using the “scouring” motion with your fingers. Do his entire flank and as much of his back and belly and abdomen as you can reach (depending on how he’s standing or lying.) Hopefully he’s snoring by now! Then, wake him up! While he’s standing, if he will stay up, do the massaging with all your fingers on his back, which you probably couldn’t see/reach that well when he was lying down.

Then, get him on his other side, and repeat.

How to Remove and Dispose of Ticks

The best tool to remove ticks in most cases is a tick spoon, or tick tool, like the one above. Robbins Pet Care, sells a good, inexpensive tick spoon, Tick Tool, which also comes with a tick ID card and magnifying glass. Amazon carries it, too, as do other places, but I have found it cheapest online at Robbins. I have found that the tick spoon is superior to tweezers. It’s easier to handle, and you’re less likely to squish the tick accidentally.

The tool comes with instructions for use, but it’s not difficult to figure out — you slide the slit of the tool against the dog’s skin so that the tick is in the slit of the tool. You keep sliding all the way until the tick is in the very narrowest part of the spoon, and then you slowly, steadily pull up. The nice thing about this tool, too, is that it usually keeps the tick trapped in the slit while you get your stuff together to dispose of the tick.

There is one time when the tick spoon does not work well, which is unfortunate, because it’s the most important time: removing very small ticks, such as deer tick nymphs. Because they are so small, sometimes the slit in the spoon is too big to catch them. This can be made more difficult if they are slightly engorged, because that makes them squishier (and deer ticks already have a softer exoskeleton than a dog tick). If you try using the tick spoon on a really, really tiny tick, and you can’t get it, my best advice is to use your fingers. Grasp at the very base, right against your dog’s skin, and pull.

(Update: Tick Removal Forceps work better because they allow me to remove any size or type of tick, even very small ticks, including deer tick nymphs. Here is my review of the forceps.)

As for disposal, some things not to do: Do not put it in the trash can. It will just crawl out. Do not squeeze it between your fingers or smash it with a rock or pierce it with scissors, because ticks are filled with harmful microorganisms, and you don’t want those splattering out. Although many people flush them down the toilet, I don’t trust flushing a live tick down the toilet, just in case it manages to climb out. They can survive and float in water a long time, especially if they have something to grab a hold of.

A pretty safe method is to put it in a jar of rubbing alcohol with a tightly closing lid. Alcohol kills them pretty quickly. I am sensitive to alcohol, so we use hydrogen peroxide. They live for a few days in the jar, but since they’re contained, they’re no longer a threat. It doesn’t kill them right away, but it does eventually. You can also put it in a tightly sealed Ziploc bag. They will die due to drying out (not starvation; they can go ridiculously long without feeding). On a hot day, they might die within twenty-four hours or less. This is also the method to use if you want to send the tick away for testing.

If you can easily get back to the spot where you removed the tick, use a disinfectant, such as an alcohol prep pad or BZK to clean the area, although it’s important not to let your dog lick alcohol, as it’s poisonous to them if ingested. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly, as well.

I hope this has been helpful! Please spread the word to everyone you know with a dog!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I loved dog-cuddling time!), and Barnum, SDiT (I’m waiting for my massage!)

Bitten by the Bug: Lyme Awareness Month, Part I

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month. I have many diseases, and they each have various awareness days or months, so I generally don’t participate — it’s too overwhelming. In fact, May is also International MCS Awareness month, which means I could do a double-header if I was up to it. Which I’m not, due to Lyme making me too nonfunctional. (See the segue?)

Little Tick Big Problem Lyme Disease

I have three-dozen draft posts on a variety of other topics for After Gadget that I’ve never published. But I’m determined to finish and post these Lyme Awareness Blogs, even if I can’t squeeze them all in this month. They cannot be more unedited pieces languishing in my draft folder. The topic’s too important.

My inability to publish with any urgency or regularity tells you a bit about living with Lyme. Extreme exhaustion, trouble with memory and word retrieval, and poor stamina are all part of the picture. So is severe and relentless body pain, insomnia, migraines (and all that goes along with them), dizziness, weakness, and much more. That’s about enough of that laundry list.

You see, there are a lot of other terrific Lyme Awareness Month posts that tell “a-day-in-the-life of a Lymie” or explain symptoms or elucidate the bacteriological mechanisms behind the disease.

I hope you will read a few.

I recommend checking out this funny one by a guy at Lymenaide; or buzzing by this SpiroChicks post showing a video public service announcement she made; or a trip to Lymebites with its variety of little posts and links to other good Lyme information; or this noteworthy Infectiously Optimistic blog, where Candice has provided many of The Voices Behind the Disease (including yours truly).

Under Our Skin poster

Mandy Hughes eyes uncertainty in her struggle with Lyme.

I definitely urge you to rent and watch the film, Under Our Skin. It is a phenomenal piece of work, and it will completely transform what you thought you knew about Lyme disease.

Another unusual aspect of Lyme is that it affects people and dogs; both Gadget and I contracted it. Many disabilities cannot be prevented, or cannot be ameliorated. Lyme, to varying degrees, can — that’s what makes awareness so crucial.

Sharon and Gadget cheek to cheek

Gadget and I both had Lyme here, but I didn't know it.

The next three After Gadget blogs will specifically address Lyme awareness from the service dog perspective:

  • How Lyme can affect your dog, and what you need to know about it (that your vet might not).
  • How Lyme can affect you, and what you need to know about it (that your doctor might not). **UPDATE: I finally wrote Part 2, about my Lyme journey, which is so representative of so many people’s, unfortunately.**
  • How Lyme transformed my experience specifically as a service dog partner.

Note: Since this blog series focuses on awareness, I’m honing in on the issues that I think are most important for you to be aware of. My goal is to prevent more cases of Lyme — especially chronic or untreated Lyme — in dogs and people.

So, I’m going to skip a lot of general information. For example, telling you the name of the strange organism that causes this disease will probably not be what impels you to rethink the limp that comes and goes in your dog, or that frustrating “flakiness” of your sister-in-law. It won’t change your mind about whether you are taking adequate precautions against tick-borne disease (TBD). On the other hand, I hope this series will.

You probably wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care about dogs, so Part I is dedicated to . . .

Part I: Awareness of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Disclaimer: This information is presented for informational purposes only. I am not a veterinarian or any other kind of health professional, just an informed consumer. These are my own opinions, based on my experience and research. Every dog — and their person — is different. Always do your own research, and trust your instincts!

Side A: PREVENTION

This Petside blog in honor of Lyme Awareness Month is pretty typical of most veterinary Lyme articles, or a bit better. It urges daily tick checks, gives basic (though limited) information on how to remove ticks (though this Lyme site does it better), and warns that Lyme is a problem in every US state and in every country worldwide.

US Map of Infected Ticks

American Lyme Disease Foundation map showing highest concentrations of Lyme-infected ticks.

Please reread that sentence, above. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say, “Lyme isn’t a problem here.” Doctors, too, frequently tell patients with Lyme, “Oh, we don’t have Lyme in [our state].” Unfortunately, many veterinarians believe the same thing. Some will even refuse to test for Lyme or other TBDs. If your vet does this, it’s time to get a new (or a second) vet. These are not diseases you can afford to stick your head in the sand about.

The sad reality is that nobody can say with confidence, “Lyme isn’t a problem here,” because it’s a problem everywhere. Although the dots in the map above show where Lyme-carrying ticks are most prevalent, dogs migrate as much as people. They move across the country and the globe by car and airplane for breeding, as pets, and for competitions. And wherever there are dogs, there are ticks.

I know people and dogs who have contracted Lyme in cities with almost no vegetation; in desert areas, like Arizona; and in frozen areas, like Alaska. Lyme is spreading into areas where it was previously extremely rare. Certainly, in endemic areas such as the West Coast, the Great Lakes region, and the East Coast, vets should test and evaluate for Lyme as part of routine check-ups. But even in other areas of the country, when unexplained symptoms arise (and even some otherwise explainable ones), TBDs should be ruled out.

If the ground is not totally covered in snow . . .

The Petside article, as is true of most pieces on Lyme, focuses on the hot summer months as the danger time for ticks. In fact, ticks emerge and start feasting on our dogs (and us) in the early spring and continue through the late fall. I’ve found ticks on my dogs even when there is still snow covering much of the ground.

I live in one of the most Lyme-endemic areas of the country. As of this writing, we have found over forty ticks on Barnum; at least half have been deer ticks. We started finding them in March. Last year, we found ticks through November. In fact, in my area, the worst tick times are usually April/May and September/October. Therefore, depending on where you are in the country, if you start checking your dog for ticks in May or June, you might be too late.

The Lyme vaccine was banned for human use,  yet . . .

The Petside article also suggests use of the Lyme vaccine. Most veterinary colleges and informed vets do not give the vaccine. First of all, there are multiple other TBDs that are potentially fatal to dogs, and the vaccine does not address them at all, so getting the vaccine is not a replacement for preventing tick-related problems. Further, the vaccine can cause Lyme-vaccinated dogs to contract an untreatable form of the disease, and it makes one of the most common veterinary Lyme test useless. In fact, several years ago, Jersey’s veterinarian — a very traditional vet — told me that, despite the huge number of Lyme cases their practice saw, their experience with the vaccine was that it was both risky and ineffective, and they now urged clients not to use it.

Tick prevention products not always “spot on.” . . .

Canine Lyme is transmitted by ticks (specifically by three species of ticks, the Deer Tick [or Eastern Black Legged Tick], the Lone-Star tick, and the Western Black-Legged Tick). Therefore tick-bite prevention is important. Most people (often urged by their veterinarians and groomers, who sell the products), use flea-and-tick pesticides on their dogs to combat ticks. It’s almost impossible to open a pet catalog or magazine or enter a pet-supply store without being bombarded by inducements to use these products. Advertising, of course, works. Flea-and-tick products are a billion-dollar industry. In 2006, Frontline and Advantage were the two top-selling flea-and-tick products. Advantage is made by Bayer. Only two Bayer products outsold Advantage that year — aspirin and a diabetes drug.

Unfortunately, putting Frontline or Advantix on your dog every month is not necessarily going to prevent your dog (or you) from getting Lyme. For one thing, these types of “spot-on” treatments require the tick to bite the dog to be effective; only after it’s stayed attached for eight-to-ten hours does the tick succumb to the poison it’s been drinking in the dog’s blood. Unfortunately, there is no scientific consensus as to how long a tick needs to be attached before it can transmit Lyme. Various “authorities” have told me 24 hours, 36 hours, and 72 hours, which strikes me as a pretty arbitrary range. Further, other TBDs can be transmitted within shorter intervals, such as five hours for rocky mountain spotted fever.

Equally important is whether these products work at all. I’ve been hearing from friends, neighbors, and veterinarians that formerly effective products no longer prevent ticks. These observations are affirmed by NRDC’s in-depth report, “Poisons on Pets”:

While pet products often are marketed for use against both fleas and ticks,
many are not particularly effective against ticks. . . .
Experts also have observed signs of insecticide resistance among ticks. They
simply are not as easy to treat as previously. . . . However, there is little or no hard data on the problem, since there has been no concerted federal effort to do the research and collect the data. . . .
Regional variation in resistance further complicates the picture. . . .
None of [even] the [tick-specific] products are completely effective.

Thus, new poisons are created, tested (in pretty nasty ways on puppies and kittens — just read the small print in the advertisements), marketed as “new and improved,” and sold to desperate consumers.

As someone whose life has been devastated by Lyme disease, it’s hard for me to argue against using something that works to prevent ticks to some extent, even if it doesn’t stop them all. I understand where the panic comes from.

However, as someone who is also chemically injured and made terribly sick by these toxic chemicals, knowing that I can be exposed at any time with dire consequences is also panic-inducing.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued warnings about, and increased scrutiny of, spot-on flea and tick products, reporting that they have caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of cases of illness in dogs and cats. People, too, have been disastrously affected, especially small children, as discussed in the NRDC document, as well as numerous other sources.

Ultimately, knowing the risks to people, dogs, and the environment of tick pesticides, I urge safer options.

What are safer options? . . .

Solid science is emerging in the use of plant oils (essential oils derived from plants and trees) in repelling and/or killing ticks and other insects and arachnids. This EPA page provides an informational chart. I’ve done some research, and there seem to be several products on the market that repel ticks, fleas, mosquitoes, and other pests without toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, due to my sensitivity to (even natural) fragrances, I can’t use them, but for most, they should work. They generally require more frequent application than “spot on” treatments — usually once or twice a week, after getting wet, and before any expected exposure to ticks or other bugs. If you’re looking into a product that claims to be “natural” and only requires application once a month, suspicion is warranted. I don’t want to endorse specific products or stores, but this is a google search that should get you started. If you’ve used a nontoxic product that’s worked, please comment.

Even with a good, nontoxic tick spray . . .

Tick checking is crucial. The earlier a tick is removed, the lower the chances for it to pass an infection to your dog. Thus, every 24 hours at a minimum is best.

Many people think they tick check, but they are not doing a thorough enough job. For tick checking to work, every part of the people and animals at risk must be examined in detail, from toes to nose to tail to crown. On dogs, ticks’ favorite spots are usually the head (especially the ears), neck, shoulders, and legs. However, I have found ticks between toe pads, on lips, backs, anus, eyelids, and everywhere else on a dog.

If you have never found a tick on your dog, it’s because you’re not searching thoroughly.

If you live in an endemic area, and you don’t find at least several ticks per week on your dog, you are not searching thoroughly.

I know these are strong statements, but I make them based on hard experience.

For one thing, adult deer ticks are the size of a poppy seed when not engorged. Nymphal ticks are the size of a pin head when they are engorged. Most cases of Lyme transmission to humans — who are much easier to tick-check than dogs! — are caused by nymphs.

Deer ticks on fingertip

For another, frequently, other people tick check my dogs for me and tell me they didn’t find any, or they find  one. Often, if I check again, I find at least one more. Once, Betsy and I found a deer tick larva on Gadget, the very smallest of ticks. We happened to be at the vet’s when we found it. It was so small, I didn’t think it was a tick until after I pull it off and examined it extremely closely to see that it had body parts. It looked like a skin fleck. When I gave it to a tech to ask her to dispose of it, she said, “How did you find this?” in an astonished tone. If vet techs in an endemic area don’t realize how small a deer tick can be, what are the chances we all overlook ticks if we don’t check thoroughly?

It takes Betsy and me, working together, at least an hour to thoroughly tick check one dog. Of course, if we had small, white dogs with short, soft hair, it would be a lot easier than large, dark dogs with long wiry hair! Even if you have a small, pale dog, looking is not enough. You have to feel every inch of the dog. This can turn into a nice nightly ritual where the dog gets a full-body massage. Gadget used to love tick checks. We called it “dog cuddling time.” He’d get very relaxed and floppy. Sometimes he would moan with pleasure or fall asleep. Barnum enjoys jumping on the bed and receiving the attention, but he still is very mouthy and wiggly, which makes it much more time-consuming. (Often, the only way we achieve it at all is that I click and treat Barnum for relaxed behavior, using the techniques outlined in Leslie McDevitt’s excellent book, Control Unleashed, while Betsy does most of the groping. Then, when she finds a tick, I pull it off.)

Sometimes Betsy or I will carefully check a leg or an ear and find no ticks, and then we will switch, and the other will find one, two, or three ticks that were missed on the same body part! Again, this is because ticks can be smaller than the dot over the “i” in this sentence. Here is a page that shows a variety of ticks, both enlarged and actual size, and before feeding and after engorgement.

Even if you don’t walk in the woods . . .

I’ve heard a lot of reasons people think their dogs (and they) are safe from Lyme and ticks. These include that they walk their dogs in the middle of the road, that they don’t take their dogs to the homes/lawns of other people (such as me) who know there are deer ticks in the area, that they keep their dogs to their own lawn, and more. If only it were so simple. (Some people also believe that if they or their dogs are ultra healthy, they will be immune. Sadly, this, too, is not the case, although as I mention at the end of the blog, a strong immune system is a major asset.)

Most people with Lyme get infected in their own yards. Some put this figure at 70 percent of Lyme cases. There is a lot of information on how to make your yard less attractive to ticks. Some simple things are keeping the lawn mowed (or doing away with a lawn — clover is nice instead) and getting rid of dry leaves, brush, and other debris that harbor mice, as mice as the main carriers of Lyme to people. This New York state guide to creating a tick-free zone around your home provides more detail. It seems extremely unlikely that our dogs are any less likely to pick up ticks around their homes — that they are only acquiring these blood-sucking hitchhikers in the woods or near the ocean. In fact, ticks prefer medium-sized mammals like dogs (thus, some species of ticks are even called “dog ticks”) though ticks will feed on anything with blood that comes their way, including much larger mammals (horses) or birds, etc.

Being aware of weather and climate issues is also important. Ticks prefer a moist environment because dry heat is dangerous to their exoskeletons. Thus, the biggest Lyme outbreaks are often in coastal areas, such as Cape Cod and Long Island. Articles that focus on hiking and dog park might mislead you: don’t discount walks on rainy days — or just running outside to potty. In fact, during wet spells, we had ticks crawling onto our driveway and up our doors!

Side B: DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT

Prevention of tick bites is certainly important, but as is probably painfully clear by now, it is not always possible. Given this, it is essential to know the signs and symptoms of Lyme and other TBDs and to do your best to make your dog as resistant to illness as possible.

Know thine enemy . . .

Among both physicians and veterinarians familiar with Lyme disease, it is known as “the great imitator,” because its symptoms can mimic those of so many other diseases, and because Lyme — and other TBDs — can affect so many systems in the body. Because Lyme and TBDs can sometimes be fatal in dogs, or at the least can turn into chronic health issues, it’s important to know the symptoms.

In Lyme disease, the most common symptom is lameness. It is often a sudden onset, and it might move to different joints, come and go. Swelling or tenderness may or may not accompany the lameness. Other stereotypical symptoms of sudden-onset Lyme are fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, and weakness. Kidney, brain/neurologic, and cardiac symptoms — that were not previously noted — can also be signs. Dr. Schoen’s article, Lyme Disease: Fact or Fiction, is a good one, not least because he lives and works in an endemic area and has seen the many permutations this disease can take. WebMD also provides a concise, yet useful, overview of canine Lyme. If you want a broader survey, a google search using keywords Lyme dogs symptoms is effective.

There are too many TBDs for me to cover all the symptoms and syndromes adequately, but I encourage you to learn about, at the very least, ehrlichia, babesia, rocky mountain spotted fever, anaplasma, and bartonella and make use of these links. This tick FAQ has an extensive list of symptoms, as well as listing diseases that might be mistaken for TBDs. This page on canine TBDs provides the personal, and heartbreaking, background for the urgency in proper diagnosis.

One site to bookmark is Cornell’s “Consultant” search engine. You can search by the name of a disease or by the symptoms your dog is displaying.

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3 . . .

While laboratory tests can certainly prove useful in diagnosis, in Lyme and other TBDs, they are not always the most useful tool. As previously mentioned, a dog who has been vaccinated for Lyme will usually show a false negative on certain tests. However, it is also possible for a dog to have Lyme or another TBD and for the test to come back a false negative. This is why it is so important to know the symptoms, to be aware of your dog’s level of tick exposure, and to know the prevalence of the different tick diseases in your area. If enough signs point to a TBD, and especially if your dog is really sick and/or your veterinarian is not sure of the diagnosis, it is often prudent to treat for that disease and see if there is a response.

There is also controversy about when or whether to treat when a dog tests positive for Lyme. The conventional wisdom until very recently was that the great majority of dogs who are exposed to the bacterium that causes Lyme, and who therefore have antibodies for Lyme disease, don’t actually become sick. Many vets, therefore, did not (and most still don’t), treat a dog for Lyme unless she is showing obvious symptoms.

However, new studies are showing that dogs who appear to be asymptomatic might actually be experiencing symptoms undetected — either subtle clinical symptoms or those that only show up on lab tests. In fact, the infection might cause serious long-term damage if untreated even when there are no known symptoms. This article presents this new information. It is the best I’ve read on this aspect of Lyme in dogs; please read it, and bring a copy of it to your vet.

The Great Imitator . . .

Because Lyme tests are not always accurate, and because TBDs can resemble so many other conditions, if your dog exhibits symptoms that stump you and your veterinarian, it’s important to raise the question, “Could this be Lyme and/or another TBD?” In fact, even if your vet arrives at another diagnosis, you might still want to test and/or treat for a TBD if the symptoms are suspiciously similar. For not only might Lyme be masquerading as arthritis, a heart condition, or another condition, it might also be part of the clinical picture along with another disease.

This was the case with Gadget. When the ER vet told me she was pretty certain Gadget had lymphoma, she also said it could be a tick-borne disease, so we ordered a C6 ELISA test for Lyme or a Lyme PCR, if possible — a more accurate and detailed test than the in-house SNAP test — and a complete TBD panel from Idexx. As it turned out, while Gadget did have lymphoma, he also had a Lyme titer that was literally off the chart; it was above the highest titer level the C6 tested for. Treating his Lyme did not save Gadget’s life, but he responded very well to treatment with the antibiotic, doxycycline. His quality of life during his last few months was tremendously enhanced by treatment for Lyme. His energy and movement improved greatly. I only wish I had realized sooner that the slowing down I’d attributed to age and hypothyroidism was probably actually related to invisible joint pain.

Holistic and Conventional Treatment Approaches

Even among practitioners and clients who try to avoid medications, especially antibiotics, when not absolutely necessary, there is a near consensus that Lyme and other TBDs require “the big guns.” In fact, in my experience, many vets are not as aggressive as they should be when treating Lyme. The microbe that causes the disease is complex and tough. It often remains in the dog’s system even after a short (or even a long) course of antibiotics. Those who have been “in the trenches” of the Lyme life — be it human or canine or both — have learned the hard way that it’s best to hit this disease hard, fast, and sustained. For many vets and owners, this means combining antibiotics with other modalities (herbs, acupuncture, homeopathy) to fight the microbes with all possible weapons.

The best antibiotic to fight Lyme is doxycycline, with two exceptions. One is if your dog is allergic to this drug. If he is, amoxicillin is considered the second-best choice. The other is if you have a puppy whose bones are still forming. Doxycycline can interfere with calcium and affect bone growth, so this is something you and your vet will have to weigh. Treatment should be five milligrams per pound of body weight for at least two months. If your vet wants to take more of a “wait and see” approach without a darn good reason, find another vet!

If you live in a Lyme endemic area and/or you are unable to use any form of effective tick preventative, please take whatever steps you can to help your dog’s immune system fight off infection. While everyone wants their dog to be as healthy as possible, it’s worth noting that the microbe that causes Lyme disease attacks and suppresses the hosts immune system as soon as it begins to colonize. According to Stephen Buhner, the author of Healing Lyme, the degree to which someone gets sick with Lyme disease after exposure to the bacteria — both whether they get Lyme disease and how sick they get — is directly related to the strength of their immune system.

There are two approaches to applying this information. One is ensuring that your dog is as healthy as possible. This means the healthiest possible diet, the right balance of exercise and rest, freedom from stress when possible, and protection from harmful elements, including excessive vaccination, medication, pesticide, and the like. Again, some might also choose other health care modalities to shore up your dog’s immune system.

The second approach is to give your dog herbs (some use tinctures, others dried herbs as capsules) specifically shown to help prevent Lyme or to treat early-stage Lyme. This way, if your dog is exposed to Lyme-causing agents, you might head off the disease before it gets a foothold. The herbs in this list are sarsaparilla, cat’s claw, andrographis, astragalus, and resveratrol (Japanese knotweed — not the grape extract sold under the same name). Obviously, to learn the proper administration and dosage, you should consult an herbalist experienced with canine Lyme.

While Lyme-fighting supplements and a superbly healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward prevention of Lyme — or of chronic Lyme — they are by no means guarantees. Please don’t think that you don’t need to tick check just because you feed raw, don’t vaccinate, and don’t use pesticides. Anyone can get sick from this nasty, stealthy bug. By the same token, if your dog does get sick, please don’t blame yourself. We should all do the most we can to be aware and take preventative measures, but in the end, luck plays a factor, too.

Thank you for reading this long post!

May this information remain strictly academic for you and your dogs, for years and years to come.

As always, we welcome your comments and questions.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget, with Barnum (the fast-growing, and so far, healthy, puppy)


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