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New Study Shows Dogs May Be the Key to Detecting Lyme Disease

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.

The team also found an association between canine data and the rates of Lyme disease in humans in the same analysis. In places where at least 10 percent of dogs tested positive for exposure to the tick’s bacteria, there were increases in recorded diagnoses of Lyme disease. Interestingly enough, as the number of pups exposed to the bacteria increased, the amount of Lyme disease found in humans decreased. But not many places in the United States have higher levels of canine exposure to this strain of bacteria in particular. “We don’t fully understand why the association drops off,” Gettings said. “It may be that we don’t have a ton of data at that level.” Researchers are planning to use data from annual canine check-ups to understand how Lyme disease is changing over time, but the authors of the study report that their findings also provide some challenges. This method of screening doesn’t account for when a dog is traveling and contracts Lyme disease outside of their usual surroundings, for example.