Fundraising for Research of Tick-Borne Diseases in Dogs Gets Boost from AKC


Performing brilliantly over 10 challenging series of multiple land and water marks and blinds, a 9-year-old black Labrador Retriever named “Roxie” stylishly won the 2015 National Amateur Retriever Championship. NAFC-FC Hardscrabble Roxie McBunn gave owner-handler Bill Benson of Northfield, Illinois, his first National win that day last June in Ronan, Montana.

Benson recalls driving to upstate New York to pick up Roxie, an 8-week-old bundle of black fluff, from breeders Mitch and Margo Brown who had agreed to let him have the puppy they had kept for themselves from the litter sired by FC-AFC Creek Robber out of FC-AFC M&M’s Buns of Steel. The recent passing of another black female Labrador Retriever, Good Golly Miss Molly, was behind Benson’s quest to find a puppy.

“I didn’t want to wait for a litter to be born,” Benson says. “After Molly died, I knew I had to do something because I was feeling so depressed.” Intending for “Molly” to be his waterfowl hunting companion, Benson sent her away to be trained. She turned out to be talented enough to be his first field trial Labrador. In the summer of 2006, Benson took 3-year-old Molly back to the trainer after a long holiday weekend. A small group watched as she completed a difficult triple water retrieve and then uncharacteristically moped back to the truck.

Sensing something was amiss, Benson planned to take Molly home, but not before veterinarian and fellow Labrador enthusiast Jeff Schuett, DVM, DABVP, took out his medical kit and drew a vial of blood for testing. That evening, Molly urinated in Benson’s house, something she never did.

“The next morning Jeff called and told me to get Molly straight to a specialty clinic,” Benson says. “Her kidneys had shut down. He said he had no idea how she was living.”

The veterinary nephrologist diagnosed Molly with Lyme nephritis, a rare reaction to Lyme disease that occurs in 1 to 2 percent of dogs, affecting Labrador and Golden retrievers more than other breeds. The potentially fatal condition causes irreversible kidney damage. Over the next 10 days, Molly had some good times when she felt well enough to retrieve a bumper Benson tossed her in the yard outside the specialty clinic.

“We did everything we could for Molly,” says Benson. “She died 10 days and $11,000 later. She was a great dog, a great house dog.”

Caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, Lyme disease is transmitted by deer ticks and Western black-legged ticks. Cases range from mild to severe, with severe cases sometimes causing kidney failure and death. An annual vaccine can be given to help prevent Lyme disease but is not 100 percent effective.

Over the past five years, Dr. Schuett says he has had two of his own sporting Labradors test positive for Lyme disease, two for anaplasmosis and one for Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The dogs tested positive for the tick-borne diseases despite his using the Lyme vaccine and a monthly topical tick preventive. Dr. Schuett recommends to his clients new products recently introduced including the Seresto® eight-month flea and tick collar and the Bravecto® three-month flea and tick pill. 

“Tick preventives reduce tick-borne disease transmission by either repelling ticks that go on to die or by rapidly killing ticks that have attached to the dog,” says Ed Breitschwerdt, DVM, DACVIM, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at North Carolina State University. “The type of product and how the product is used to protect a dog varies based on factors including exposure risk, frequency of swimming or bathing, and, most importantly, owner compliance in using the product as directed.

“For hunting dogs at high-exposure risk, the concurrent use of an oral or topical preventive with a collar having proven efficacy provides additional assurance of protection,” Dr. Breitschwerdt says. “Veterinarians are the best sources as to what product or combination of products is best for an individual dog.”

At his veterinary practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Dr. Schuett says Lyme disease is the No. 1 infectious disease affecting dogs. “Of all the tick-borne diseases, Lyme is the scariest because it can kill,” he says. “We see ticks year-round, though spring and fall are the worse times. One warm day in winter that is 40 degrees, and the tick problem is back.”

Better Understanding of Tick Diseases

An ongoing pattern of unseasonal warm temperatures has contributed to the year-round presence of ticks. The movement of several tick species from the South to the North or the North to the South, depending on the tick species and original location, has played a role as well. As a result, the geographical distribution of ticks is spreading and causing tick-borne diseases to become a growing threat to dogs and people. Some diseases can be transmitted as quickly as three to six hours after a tick bite.

“The most important factor that will impact tick prevalence in 2016 will be rainfall,” says Dr. Breitschwerdt. “Ticks like moist, warm environments. We move people, dogs, wild animals, and vectors, including ticks, around the world at an unprecedented rate in human history. Thus, we continue to change the ecology and dynamics of tick-borne diseases.”

The AKC Canine Health Foundation recently launched the Tick-Borne Disease Initiative to raise funds for research aimed at discovering innovative approaches to better understanding and treating these diseases. The American Kennel Club is matching donations received in 2016 up to $250,000.

Diane E. Brown, DVM, PhD, DACVP, chief executive officer of the Canine Health Foundation, says, “Tick-borne diseases occur in all 50 states and often cause serious illness in dogs, ranging from acute and life-threatening to chronic conditions that significantly impact a dog’s quality of life. Our initiative, with the generous match from the AKC, will help raise vital funds to provide better diagnostics, better preventives and better therapeutics for all dogs.”

The threat of tick-borne diseases has prompted many veterinarians to screen dogs annually for infections, similar to what has been done for decades for mosquito-transmitted heartworm disease. “Some pathogens can be seen from blood smears; however, the combined use of antibody tests and molecular diagnostic testing provides the most comprehensive approach to determine exposure to and infection with tick-borne pathogens,” says Dr. Breitschwerdt.

Blood testing detects the presence of antibody, which is one product of the dog’s immune response against a pathogen. Molecular diagnostics, or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, detects the nucleic acid, or DNA, of the organism itself. Once limited to university diagnostic and research laboratories, PCR testing for tick-borne diseases has become readily available through several large commercial diagnostic laboratories.

Dr. Schuett routinely tests dogs seen in his practice for exposure to Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis, common tick-transmitted diseases in southeastern Wisconsin. If he suspects a dog may have an infection, he will screen for additional diseases. Reasonable pricing for the testing, which includes heartworm diagnostics, encourages owners to participate.

“We have been monitoring these diseases for 10 years and have found that 5.5 percent of the dogs tested have been exposed to these diseases,” says Dr. Schuett. “Lyme disease and anaplasmosis make up 5 percent. The rest are due to transmission of Ehrlichia muris, or a closely related organism, which was recently discovered to infect dogs and humans in Minnesota and Wisconsin with ehrlichiosis. The testing is very accurate and allows us to determine earlier whether a dog has been infected and to begin treatment.”

Diagnosing tick-borne diseases can be challenging, particularly when a dog’s infection resembles other diseases. “We identified a novel Panola Mountain Ehrlichia specie in an 11-year-old male Scottish Terrier,” Dr. Breitschwerdt says. “The dog’s pathology and histology reports looked like T-cell lymphoma, but we found that this Ehrlichia infection mimics lymphoma. Antibiotic therapy resolved the ehrlichiosis and prevented the need for cancer chemotherapy.

The changing environment not only has caused a proliferation of ticks, it has resulted in the discovery of “new” tick-borne organisms every year. The goal of the Tick-Borne Disease Initiative is to learn more about diagnosing, preventing and treating dogs affected by these diseases.

Although Molly, the young Labrador who died from the rare Lyme nephritis, didn’t have a chance due to the severity of her disease, Benson, her owner, has become acutely aware of the importance of tick prevention and testing for exposure. “I’ve become obsessive-compulsive about doing all we can to prevent tick-borne diseases,” he says. “We do blood testing twice a year and use tick-preventive collars. I would much rather be on top of things than to go through what I did with Molly.”


Tick Carrier




Deer tick & Western black-legged tick
(Found throughout the US)

Anaplasma phagocytophilum, Anaplasma platys

Loss of appetite, lethargy, lameness, neck pain (A. phagocytophilum). Bruising on the gums & belly, nosebleeds (A. platys).


Brown dog tick (B. vogeli). B. gibsoni & other spp. can be transmitted when an infected dog bites an uninfected dog.
(Found throughout the US)

Babesia gibsoni, Babesia vogeli

Anemia, pale gums, weakness, anorexia, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss.


Ticks & fleas may be vectors in dogs, though little is known about its transmission
(Found throughout the US)

Bartonella henselae, Bartonella vinsonii berkhoffii

Intermittent fever, lameness, anemia, heart or liver disease among other signs.


Brown dog tick, lone star tick

(Highest prevalence in Southwest & Gulf Coast but also can be found as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as Oklahoma and Kansas)

Ehrlichia canis, Ehrlichia ewingii, Ehrlichia chaffeensis

Depression, lack of energy, loss of appetite, runny eyes, nose discharge, nosebleeds, bruising on gums & belly, lameness, joint pain.

Hemotropic Mycoplasmosis

Ticks & fleas that feed on an infected animal, though little is known about its transmission (Found throughout the U.S.)

Mycoplasma haemocanis

Depression, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever. Can cause death in severe cases.


Gulf Coast tick (H. americanum), brown dog tick (H. canis). Both types are transmitted when a dog eats an infected tick.
(Found in the eastern and mid-south regions of the US)

Hepatozoon americanum, Hepatozoon canis

Fever, depression, general pain, loss of muscle mass with chronic weight loss, eye discharge, & can be fatal (H. americanum). Loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy (H. canis).

Lyme Disease

Deer tick, Western black-legged tick
(Found througout the US)

Borrelia burgdorferi

Arthritic joint pain, lameness, lack of appetite, fatigue. Kidney damage may occur & can be fatal. Heart & neurological disease though rare may mimic other conditions.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

American dog tick, lone star tick
(American dog tick is found throughout the central and eastern parts of the U.S. & the lone star tick is common in the South)

Rickettsia rickettsii

Acute fever, depression, arthritis-like stiffness, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, neurological abnormalities, and is potentially fatal.

Used with permission from Nestle Purina PetCare.

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