More than 300,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with Lyme disease each and every year after coming into contact with an infected tick in the wild, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that many new cases go undiagnosed. Researchers have found a new way to gauge just how many people may be exposed to the disease, however, and it has to do with our furry four-legged friends. Since Lyme disease can lead to heart failure, paralysis, and other serious health complications, a new study highlights the unexpected way that health experts may be able to stem the spread of Lyme disease.
The study, published in the journal Geospatial Health, shows that healthcare professionals may be able to track dangerous ticks by using data provided by veterinarians. “We don’t screen ourselves for exposure,” Jenna Gettings, one of the lead authors of the study and a wildlife disease researcher at the University of Georgia, told New Scientist. “The only time people are tested for tick-borne disease is when they have symptoms. Whereas with dogs, we screen healthy animals.”
Most dog-owners bring their pet into the veterinarian once a year for a check-up, and professionals will turn in the data generated from the visit into a central database. Unlike personal health records that we use, veterinarians can share pets’ health records universally, Gettings said. Her team used data from more than 16.5 million dog check-ups conducted between 2012 and 2016 to see if animals produced antibodies for Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the bacteria that is linked to ticks and can manifest in Lyme disease later on. Because dogs often don’t go anywhere without their owners, the data helps scientists piece together where humans are at the most risk of contracting Lyme disease.