Pet dogs may hold the key to mystery illness

September 16, 2011

A Murdoch University researcher hopes dogs might hold the key to the mystery surrounding a potentially debilitating disease in Australia.

Dr Peter Irwin plans to test 500 pet dogs to find out if Lyme disease – which is not officially recognised in Australia – does exist after a number of people in Sydney and northern New South Wales were diagnosed with the disease by only a handful of doctors.

Lyme disease is an infection of humans and dogs that is caused by Borrelia bacteria usually transmitted to humans via the bite of an infected tick. If untreated it can cause chronic fatigue, skin conditions, aches and pains and also affect the brain and heart.

Dr Irwin, who is heading up the study, said that in areas where Lyme disease is endemic and recognised, such as parts of Northern America, Europe and Asia, dogs are also often infected by the same bacteria.

“It’s assumed that because we don’t have the same ticks as in the northern hemisphere, we don’t have Borrelia but we may have an organism that is related and causes Lyme like symptoms,” he said.

Dr Irwin will test dogs from eastern coastal Australia where the climate is perfect for ticks.

“We’ll be testing infected patients’ dogs as well as dogs in areas along the eastern seaboard where conditions are ripe but Lyme has not been found,” he said.

“If I don’t find evidence of infection in dogs, then it will suggest that these people who have been diagnosed with Lyme may have something else”.

Dr Irwin said a lack of diagnostic services for Lyme in Australia means the disease is nearly impossible to detect accurately.

“It’s difficult to diagnose Lyme because there’s no single definitive blood test you can do. There are loads of tests which give bits of an answer but nothing conclusive. “

Dr Irwin is attending Dog Day by the Bay on Sunday September 25 at Rowland Reserve, Bayview.  He is urging those who live in northern beaches area to bring their dogs down to the reserve between 10am and 3pm where he will be on hand to take blood samples.

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Comments (4 responses)

Mike Muskens July 12, 2012

An interesting proposition – if my dog doesn't have Lyme Disease, then I must have something else.
My dog has never had a tick bite. However, after I moved a dead wallaby from my front nature strip, I suffered over 200 tick bites, and was subsequently diagnosed with Lyme Disease. Interestingly, it would have only taken 1 of the 200 ticks to be carrying the disease for me to contract it. If any of the other 199 then bit my dog, by your theory if he didn't have Lyme Disease, then I was mis-diagnosed. Interesting…
I live opposite Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park – which links with other bushland to the Northern Beaches.
P.S. The wallaby had no apparant injuries (i.e. had not been hit by a car or attacked by a dog/cat). A victim of Lyme Disease, or something else? A shame we didn't take blood samples at the time.

Jo Manning July 16, 2012

This is a response to the above comment from Dr Peter Irwin:
"Thank you for the comments on our research and for your story about the wallaby. Dogs can act as sentinels for Lyme borreliosis as they are often bitten by the same ticks as bite humans in areas of the USA and Europe where the disease is confirmed and endemic. Both dogs and people are ‘accidental’ hosts since it is the local wildlife that are the natural hosts. Very often this means that the wildlife have no illness at all, because the bacteria, the ticks and the wildlife species have evolved together over millennia. We are far from certain about the status of borreliosis in Australia but regardless, it is most unlikely that the wallaby died of Lyme disease. Motor vehicle accident is most likely in this case, even without external injury. One final comment; it is not correct to use serological testing results in the dog as indicator of infection (or not) in the person. Whilst it is possible that both may be infected and therefore show positive serology, it is also possible that one is negative and the other is positive! Not every tick will transmit infection. It is a complicated biological situation with few definitive answers."

Ricardo October 3, 2014

Rather than spending money looking for Borrelia in domestic dogs, why not just collect and correlate the data that already exists in the canine vets and vet pathology labs. I'm sure they would share their data for the cause and you would have an immediate picture of the history of lyme disease in canines in Australia.

Peter Irwin October 6, 2014

Thank you for your feedback and suggestions Ricardo. We have been focussing on dogs living in certain areas of high tick activity as these presumably represent the best chance for detecting Borrelia infection if it occurs in Australia. To date there have been no positive cases. However, in line with your suggestion, we have also previously looked at the results data from a very large number of dogs tested by a commercial laboratory in Australia and could see no further evidence that any of these dogs have been exposed to this bacterium either.

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