What Causes Lyme Disease in Horses

If you’ve ever gone hiking in the northeastern United States, you’ve probably had someone remind you, “Check yourself for ticks!”

After all, ticks can carry a myriad of diseases, including the infamous Lyme disease.

Just like humans, horses are susceptible to tick bites and, therefore, to Lyme disease. While this isn’t the most common equine disease, it can have profound effects that range from stiff joints to underperformance and beyond.

In this short guide, we’ll cover the characteristics of equine Lyme disease, treatment strategies, and the best way to protect your horse and yourself from Lyme disease.

Lyme Disease 101

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection carried by ticks. In the U.S., it’s most frequently caused by the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi, although ticks in Europe and Asia carry other similar bacteria that can result in Lyme-like infections.

Ticks throughout the midwestern and northeastern United States carry B. burgdorferi. Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease (a disease in which another animal serves as a vector for transmission to humans).

Unfortunately, this nasty bacteria can be transmitted to humans, horses, cats, dogs, and other mammals.

  • Hard-bodied ticks—including deer ticks and Western black-legged ticks—are carriers for B. burgdorferi. 30-50% of adult ticks carry the bacteria, with a slightly lower incidence amongst nymphs. However, it seems that nymphs are most likely to transmit the disease.
  • Ticks feed on blood. They can thrive in residential areas, fields, yards, and woodlands. When people, cats, dogs, and horses move through tick-infested regions, there’s a high risk of tick bites.
  • Not all ticks carry Lyme disease. Even if a tick is infected, it won’t necessarily transmit the bacteria to its animal host.
  • The risk of infection with Lyme disease is highest in spring throughout summer, all before nymphs fully mature.
  • The longer a tick feeds, the higher the chance that it will transmit bacteria to its host. If ticks are immediately detected and removed, this can lower the likelihood of contracting Lyme disease.

Unfortunately, the incidence of Lyme disease is only spreading. The number of cases per year has doubled since 1991, and there are now an estimated 20,000-30,000 human cases per year.



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