Tracking ticks: P.E.I. vet clinics collecting ticks for Lyme disease study

P.E.I. veterinarians are collecting ticks as part of a research study by a graduate student at Mount Allison University.

'It would be nice to know where the ticks are'

Dr. Tara McCarthy recommends daily tick checks on dogs, including Jumper. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

P.E.I. veterinary clinics are collecting ticks as part of a research study by a graduate student at Mount Allison University.

"If you're going to your vet and you have a tick on your dog or your cat or you or your floor or your horse, they'll have a form to fill out and they'll send it to me," said Alexandra Foley-Eby, a second year Masters student at Mount Allison. 

"I test them, see whether they have the bacteria in them and then give the information back to them via their vets."

Foley-Eby is working with 11 vet clinics across P.E.I. The cost to test the tick is covered by the study, though a vet clinic may charge a fee if they have to remove the tick.

Alexandra Foley-Eby, a second year Masters student at Mount Allison University, is working with 11 vet clinics across Prince Edward Island. (Submitted by Alexandra Foley-Eby)

Human risk

Along with ticks, she's also collecting blood samples from healthy dogs.

"My study is looking at whether we can use dogs on Prince Edward Island as an indicator species for human risk," explained Foley-Eby.

"I look at blood samples from dogs on P.E.I. and then I look to see whether or not those dogs have been exposed to the bacteria that causes Lyme disease."

Mount Allison University professor Dr. Vett Lloyd is taking a closer look at what other bacteria ticks in New Brunswick carry. She's also the supervisor for Alexandra Foley-Eby's project on ticks on P.E.I. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

The idea is that she will be able to measure the spread of the disease on P.E.I., both in animals and in humans.

"Then once I have the number of dogs, I hope to be able to estimate the number of human cases that we would expect to see and compare that to the number that are reported on the Island," said Foley-Eby.

This is a male I. scapularis, much smaller in comparison to the females, said Foley-Eby. This one was removed from a Stratford dog and tested negative.

Raise awareness

She started collecting ticks in September 2016 and is hoping to continue until the end of 2017. 

So far, she has collected 200 ticks and 110 serum or blood samples. Of the ticks, 6.3 per cent have carried the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease.

Here at the Southport Animal Hospital in Stratford, P.E.I., they track the number of ticks that they remove and that clients bring in. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Foley-Eby believes the study will benefit "everyone in the loop" around Lyme disease, including the dogs, which can be monitored and treated if they test positive.

"I've had vets tell me that they've had people come up to them and say we don't have ticks here, we don't have Lyme here, I don't think it's worth my money to buy prevention for my dog," she said.

"They can say to people now, well actually x number of ticks that we've sent off have come back positive so you might want to think about it." 

Dr. Tara McCarthy says many ticks are found on a dog's head, possibly because you pet the dog there more often and may be more likely to find them. (Getty Images)

High risk areas

The Montague and Souris Veterinary Clinics are taking part in the study.

"If she can help us categorize what kind of ticks and where they are," said Dr. Edward MacAulay, veterinarian and owner of the two clinics.

"It would be nice to know where the ticks are so we could help people identify if they're in a higher risk area or a lower risk area."

Foley-Eby said this adult female was picked up by a P.E.I. dog while in Nova Scotia. Three ticks were found on the one dog, and while this one was negative, another was positive.

MacAulay has advice for P.E.I. pet owners when it comes to ticks and Lyme disease.

"There's a range of different medicines that help repel ticks, there's some that kill ticks if they attach, and there's vaccinations against Lyme disease."

"Ticks could be carriers of other diseases as well, just not as common on P.E.I. "

This is an engorged Ixodes scapularis tick (female) removed from a Summerside dog in November 2016. Foley-Eby said this tick later tested positive for Borrelia burgdorferi (bacteria which causes Lyme disease). (Submitted by Alexandra Foley-Eby)

Ticks year round

Dr. Tara McCarthy, at the Southport Animal Hospital in Stratford, P.E.I. has submitted 40 ticks so far.

"Ticks are definitely growing every year, we're seeing more and more and it used to be, we'd just see them certain times of the year, more spring and fall, now we're seeing them all year round," said McCarthy.

She has diagnosed a couple of cases of Lyme disease in her patients over the last year. 

"One was able, we caught it earlier, in the disease and was fine and one unfortunately did succumb to the disease," she said.

McCarthy also recommends daily tick checks on dogs.

Foley-Eby has already collected 200 ticks from P.E.I. (Radio-Canada)

P.E.I. cases

In a statement from the Chief Public Health Office, Lyme disease is identified as a "notifiable disease" in P.E.I. under the Public Health Act. 

In 2012, P.E.I. had its first case of lab-confirmed Lyme disease not connected to travel outside P.E.I.

In 2016, there were four cases of Lyme disease, one lab confirmed and three probable, all associated with travel to Lyme disease risk areas.

The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries does not have statistics of Lyme disease in animals because it is not a reportable disease under the Animal Health Act. 

There is a website operated by IDDEX, a manufacturer of veterinary test kits, that has gathered some information on Lyme disease in dogs across the Canadian provinces.