A Famous Dog, a Little-Known Disease: Bocker the Labradoodle and Lyme Disease

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We all want our pets to be healthy, and some of us really go out of our way to make that happen. Take Marie Shelto, who gave her dog, Bocker, flea and tick protection year-round, and always checked his fur for ticks after even so much as a dash outside.

Living in upstate New York and then in Westchester, the danger from ticks is more present than it might be for pet parents elsewhere in the US, but Marie has always known the dangers that ticks bring, and has determinedly taken all the suggested steps for keeping dogs safe from ticks: she uses a monthly flea and tick preventative, and she checks Bocker for ticks—even finding them crawling in his coat from time to time, though never attached to his skin.

Imagine her surprise when her dog contracted Lyme disease, not even just once, but twice!

A Famously Charming and Helpful Pooch

Bocker is a Labradoodle, a mix of Labrador Retriever and Poodle, and he’s also a mix of a homebody and a star. You may know him from roles in Eat, Pray, Love, MIB 3, or War of the Worlds, or you may recognize his curls from a Tommy Hilfiger ad.

Or, you may know him for his work as a therapy dog—Bocker is certified with Therapy Dogs International and helps young students learn to read as a confidence-building Tail Wagging Tutor. He’s also made several trips to Sandy Hook, CT, to provide therapy and show love and support for the surviving families of the school shooting.

He’s so personable and warm that Shelto says while working as a therapy dog, he can just tell which children want him to come in close for pets and hugs, and which ones simply want him by their side. His eyes and demeanor are so soulful that during photo shoots for his ad appearances, photographers have asked, “Who is the person inside the furry suit?”

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Sudden Symptoms

So how did this personable pooch end up with Lyme? To help get the word out about this dangerous illness during Lyme Aid Awareness Month, we talked to Shelto about Bocker’s experience with Lyme, and what she knows now that she didn’t before.

When Bocker first showed signs that something was wrong, symptoms came on suddenly. He was three years old and “all of a sudden one day, could not even walk, couldn’t stand up” Shelto says. She took him to the veterinarian, where he was able to limp inside, and a blood test showed that he’d contracted Lyme.

After one day of antibiotic treatment, Bocker was back to normal. He finished the course of antibiotics, and was in the clear.

Until September 2012, that is, when a routine blood test at the vet showed he had Lyme disease again. This time, not only had Shelto seen no ticks, Bocker hadn’t even exhibited any symptoms of illness. “I was floored,” she says.

Being a working dog like he is, Bocker gets more grooming and primping than most, and Shelto routinely used a flea comb to go over his fur after being outside. Nevertheless, the bacterial disease was there, so Bocker took another course of antibiotics and has been symptom-free since.

Confusing Lyme

“Talk about being confused,” Shelto says of how she felt. After following the normal recommendations of using flea and tick protection and regularly checking Bocker for ticks, Bocker still contracted the disease twice. What’s more, two veterinarians who’ve seen Bocker over the years have different opinions on the Lyme vaccine — a common topic of contention amongst vets.

Lyme disease is a difficult illness to diagnose and treat, not just in pets, but in people, too. Part of the problem is that the symptoms vary from person to person (and pet to pet), and could crop up days after a bite, or weeks or even months afterwards. Bocker experienced lameness in his legs the first time he had Lyme, but he’d never had a fever, lost his appetite, or became lethargic. Like Shelto, you could find your pet with Lyme disease and never even have seen the tick.

Bocker was never given the Lyme disease vaccine because his “original doctor didn’t want it,” Shelto says. Their veterinarian at the time felt there was little benefit to the vaccine, and explained that some dogs actually develop symptoms of Lyme from the vaccine. She’s since been told that the vaccine may have helped. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a heck of a lot of clarity about it, and that’s a shame.”

Looking Forward

Bocker is now off his antibiotics and has had no recurring symptoms, so hopefully that’ll be the end of his run-ins with the disease.

“If I ever get another dog,” Shelto says, “what do I do? I’m still unsure.” If she had gone to a vet who’d recommend the vaccine, she wonders, “would that have prevented it, or not?”

Shelto says that in the end, “it’s really tricky” but “awareness is the key,” because in addition to transmitting diseases to our pets, ticks “can wind up on you.”

Shelto says that in her experience, ticks are more active in her area in October, rather than in the early spring and summer, so pet parents should be aware that tick season may be longer than what is commonly thought.

You can follow Bocker on his Facebook page, of which Shelto says, “he does all himself; I don’t get involved.”

*Photos courtesy of Marie Shelto

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