Vector-Borne Diseases in Pets: Why They’re Becoming a National Problem

Vector-borne diseases (spread by ticks and mosquitos) used to be a regional problem. However, illnesses like Lyme disease and heartworm have become a national issue.


Diseases that are spread to pets by vectors (ticks and mosquitos) have historically been approached as regional problems. These vector-borne diseases (VBD) may not be discussed with you during a veterinary exam if your region is not considered a hot spot. However, with mobility of people and pets, along with the change in distribution of vectors geographically, VBDs are quickly becoming important to the pet wellness conversation no matter where you live.

Types of Vector-Borne Diseases and Why They’re On the Rise

Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are all examples of diseases that are spread by ticks to canines (cats have less susceptibility to these tick-borne diseases). Heartworm is spread by the mosquito and can affect dogs or cats. Because these diseases are spread by vectors, the pets at greatest risk are the ones who live in the same region where these vector populations are highest. However, with changes in climate and other factors, these vectors are not staying put and their distribution is changing. 

The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) creates and updates forecast maps that show where vector-borne diseases have been found and their prevalence. These maps show a widespread increase in heartworm incidence, as well as significant changes in the regional distribution of tick-borne disease.

These maps are based on finding positive results when testing pets for VBD. So, they don’t necessarily tell us where the infection occurred, just that a pet tested positive in that region. This means the pet could have been infected locally, while traveling, or prior to adoption.

Many organizations now rescue animals from different geographical regions within the U.S. and outside of the country. These animals can harbor VBDs that go undetected until there are symptoms. In some cases, the disease will remain latent or subclinical for very long periods of time. Often, the history of adopted animals is unknown, making it more difficult to determine if they have been at risk for VBD. 

How to Determine if Your Pet Is at Risk

Trying to determine whether your pet is at risk for VBD is often more complicated than just utilizing screening and prevention strategies. For screening, there are simple and cost-effective diagnostic tests available that can be added to your pet’s annual wellness blood panel. You can speak with your veterinarian about these screening tests, as well as tick and heartworm preventive options. It’s well worth having the conversation, because these diseases are serious and come with costly implications related to your budget and your pet’s well-being.

Heartworm, Lyme, Ehrlichia, and Anaplasma are all diseases transmitted by vectors and have been detected in each of the 50 States. While your area may not be considered endemic (known as a region where the disease is common), your pets may still be at risk, especially if they travel or their history prior to adoption is unknown.

AKC Pet Insurance (underwritten by Independence American Insurance Company) offers optional wellness coverage that provides reimbursement for eligible routine and preventive care expenses, like your pet’s flea and tick prevention. To get a pet insurance quote or learn more, click here or give us a call at 866-725-2747.

Nell Ostermeier DVM, CVA, FAAVA

Nell Ostermeier is an Integrative Veterinarian, Motivator, Lecturer, and Consultant.


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