More than 300,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with Lyme disease each andevery year after coming into contact with an infected tick in the wild, butthe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that many new cases goundiagnosed. Researchers have found a new way to gauge just how many peoplemay 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, andother serious health complications, a new study highlights the unexpected waythat health experts may be able to stem the spread of Lyme disease.

The study, published in the journal Geospatial Health, shows that healthcareprofessionals may be able to track dangerous ticks by using data provided byveterinarians. “We don’t screen ourselves for exposure,” Jenna Gettings, oneof the lead authors of the study and a wildlife disease researcher at theUniversity of Georgia, told New Scientist. “The only time people are testedfor tick-borne disease is when they have symptoms. Whereas with dogs, wescreen 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 acentral database. Unlike personal health records that we use, veterinarianscan share pets’ health records universally, Gettings said. Her team used datafrom more than 16.5 million dog check-ups conducted between 2012 and 2016 tosee if animals produced antibodies for Borrelia burgdorferi, which is thebacteria 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 helpsscientists piece together where humans are at the most risk of contractingLyme 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 10percent of dogs tested positive for exposure to the tick’s bacteria, therewere increases in recorded diagnoses of Lyme disease. Interestingly enough, asthe number of pups exposed to the bacteria increased, the amount of Lymedisease found in humans decreased. But not many places in the United Stateshave higher levels of canine exposure to this strain of bacteria inparticular. “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 tounderstand how Lyme disease is changing over time, but the authors of thestudy report that their findings also provide some challenges. This method ofscreening doesn’t account for when a dog is traveling and contracts Lymedisease outside of their usual surroundings, for example.

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