Tick-Borne Disease: Tremendously Tricky in Horses

Learn the latest on diseases horses can get from ticks and why they continue to frustrate veterinarians and researchers.
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Learn the latest on diseases horses can get from ticks and why they continue to frustrate veterinarians and researchers

If the sight of a tick makes your skin crawl—even if it’s not crawling on your skin— you’re not alone. That feeling is founded on more than a natural aversion to arachnids; diseases transmitted by ticks can pose a real health threat. With Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maps outlining tick ranges throughout the majority of the United States, it’s important we brush up on our understanding of tick-borne diseases. In this article we’ll take a look at the three that pose the biggest risk to horses: Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and piroplasmosis.

Lyme Disease

Horse owners living in areas of the country heavily infested with Ixodes scapularis, commonly known as blacklegged ticks (also referred to as deer ticks or bear ticks), know these parasites are more than a nuisance. In these regions contracting Lyme disease from infected ticks is entirely possible for horses and humans alike.

Lyme disease is a very difficult disease to prevent, diagnose, and treat in horses, says Linda Mittel, MSPH, DVM, senior extension associate at Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center, in Ithaca, New York. Horses contract Lyme disease when the spirochete (a type of bacterium) Borrelia burgdorferi is transmitted through the bite of an infected tick.

Diagnosis

Here’s why diagnosing Lyme disease is tricky: Not all infected horses exhibit clinical signs, and the signs themselves are often confounding, meaning they can point to any number of other diseases. Even if you know an infected tick bit your horse (You can actually test it!), signs of Lyme disease might not appear for up to six weeks after exposure. In short, nothing is straightforward with this disease. An infected tick might or might not transmit the bacteria to its host, and an infected animal might or might not exhibit signs of disease

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Freelance journalist Natalie DeFee Mendik is a multiple American Horse Publications editorial and graphics awards winner specializing in equestrian media. She holds an MA in English from Colorado State University and an International Federation of Journalists’ International press card, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists. With over three decades of horse experience, Natalie’s main equine interests are dressage and vaulting. Having lived and ridden in England, Switzerland, and various parts of the United States, Natalie currently resides in Colorado with her husband and two girls.

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