Lyme disease in dogs: Four very scary words for a pet parent. When a pup is bitten by an infected tick and contracts Lyme disease, they can get very sick, becoming feverish, tired and experiencing pain from arthritis, which can be a result of this disease attacking collagen-rich body tissue. The very good news is that with the right tools and knowledge, Lyme disease in dogs is treatable and completely preventable.
From the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs to watch out for to possible treatments, here’s what pet parents need to know.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is one of the most common diseases spread by ticks. Yes, those little blood-suckers again. To be more specific, Lyme disease is caused by a microscopic spiral-shaped bacterial organism called Borrelia burgdorferi that lives inside hard-shelled ticks that go by the Latin name Ixodes scapularis—a mouthful, we know. Also known as black-legged ticks or deer ticks (much easier to pronounce), Ixodes tick species are found in the upper Midwest and northeast portion of the United States and southern Canada.
When a tick feeds, it attaches itself firmly to a host (aka your dog) and sucks blood for several days before falling off. If a tick is infected with Borrelia, the infectious agent of Lyme disease, then it will transmit the infection to the host through feeding. Conversely, if a host is infected with Lyme disease, then the tick may become infected as well and pass the infection on to the next host it feeds upon.
The longer a tick is attached to a host, the greater the risk of becoming infected. If you remove a tick from your dog (or yourself, for that matter—it’s not just dogs who are at risk) within 24 hours of attaching, then you dramatically reduce the risk of Lyme disease.
What does Lyme disease actually do to a dog?
The main ailment seen with Lyme disease in dogs is arthritis due to bacterial migration through the joints. Borrelia, the culprit behind Lyme disease, loves body tissues that are high in collagen—therefore the body systems that have high amounts of collagen—like skin, joints, tendons, the heart, muscles and lymph nodes—tend to be most affected.
You can learn more about arthritis in dogs here.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs?
The most common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs include:
- Unexplained recurrent limping or joint pain that seems to shift from leg to leg
- Walking stiffly, arched back, increased sensitivity to petting
- Swollen joints that are warm to the touch
- Appetite loss
- Decreased energy
- Swelling near the tick bite
In rare cases, Lyme disease can cause kidney failure in dogs, which can result in vomiting, diarrhea, increased drinking and urination, weight loss and puffiness of extremities.
If you notice any of the above symptoms—we repeat, any of the above symptoms—give your vet a call ASAP. They can help give you peace of mind, provide insight, and diagnose your pup quickly for the best outcome.
How is Lyme disease diagnosed in dogs?
Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose because the signs are nonspecific and can mimic other diseases, like autoimmune diseases or bacterial infections. Veterinarians diagnose Lyme disease by considering the dog’s history, their exposure to ticks, whether the dog has been in an area affected by Lyme disease, physical examination findings, laboratory testing and response to therapy.
So, what does that all mean?
If your vet suspects your dog has Lyme disease, be prepared for testing and a bit of trial and error, because Lyme can be tricky! Since routine lab work (bloodwork and urinalysis) is usually normal unless the kidneys are affected, additional testing can include joint taps (collecting fluid from swollen or painful joints), testing samples of swollen lymph nodes, testing for antibodies and X-rays to evaluate joints.
Here is where it gets complicated:
- You can test for Borrelia (remember: that’s the bacterial organism behind Lyme disease) with specific antibody tests. However, if a dog tests positive for Borrelia, that doesn’t necessarily mean that dog has Lyme disease—it only means the dog has been exposed to Borrelia. If your dog tests positive, your vet can run a follow-up test called QC6 to confirm the infection.
- A dog can have Lyme disease, but if you test too early, antibodies would not have had time to form, causing the test to be falsely negative. (It is recommended to wait at least four weeks after initial exposure to a tick bite to test for antibodies to give them time to form.)
- Some dogs are tested too long after they were infected with Lyme and no longer have antibodies, which can also cause a test to be falsely negative.
Phew! Don’t let all that panic you though: Whether your dog tests positive or negative for antibodies against Borrelia, your vet still will look at all the factors to determine if that test is truly indicative of Lyme disease or just a red herring. In addition, your vet will likely recommend follow-up antibody testing to make sure that treatment is eliminating the infection.
How is Lyme disease in dogs treated?
Lyme disease in dogs treatment consists of antibiotics for a minimum of four weeks; the most commonly used antibiotics for Lyme disease in dogs include doxycycline, amoxicillin, or azithromycin. If a dog is limping from arthritis due to Lyme, then improvement is expected within two to five days of starting antibiotics. Symptoms may return on and off for weeks to months. If that happens, then the dog is treated with antibiotics again.
This Lyme disease in dogs treatment typically resolves symptoms quickly in most pups. However, some dogs remain persistently infected and require multiple rounds of antibiotics. In addition, dogs can become reinfected with Lyme if they are bitten by another infected tick.
How to prevent Lyme disease in dogs
The best way to prevent Lyme disease in dogs is to prevent ticks from ever using your dog as a meal. The best way to do that is:
- Know whether you live in or visit areas where Lyme disease is prevalent. The Companion Animal Parasite Council has excellent maps that you can use to check your area so you can stay extra vigilant if you fall into one of the zones.
- Always check your dog for ticks after forays into wilderness areas. Ticks are common in tall grasses, and love to hide on dogs under armpits, in ears, in between the shoulder blades, and in other hard-to-reach areas (darn those little buggers!). A flea comb is an excellent tool to use for tick hunting. You can learn more about flea grooming here.
- Use a quick-kill, long-lasting flea-and-tick product (such as the ones below) on your dog during tick season (ticks are active any time the ground temperature is above 45 degrees Fahrenheit).
- If you notice any ticks, remove them promptly (learn how below).
For your dog’s flea and tick prevention, use veterinarian-recommended products: A few of my personal favorites that I recommend are Bravecto, Simparica Trio, NexGard, Seresto collars, Frontline and K9 Advantix II. You can learn more about your flea and tick prevention options here.
If you live in a heavy tick area or if your dog swims frequently, you will need to reapply or administer tick prevention more often than the label indicates: Ask your vet for a frequency that will keep these blood suckers off your dog.
What to do if my dog has a tick?
Despite all your best efforts, sometimes a tick will still take hold of your pooch. If your dog has a tick, then you will want to remove it as soon as possible.
To remove, follow these steps:
- Spread your dog’s fur around the tick to better your view.
- Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers.
- Pull the tick slowly and steadily straight out.
- Drop the tick in rubbing alcohol in a jar and close with a lid. (If your dog comes down with any signs of Lyme disease afterwards, you can take the tick to your veterinarian for testing.)
- Wipe the skin where the tick was attached with an antiseptic, then apply a small amount of triple antibiotic ointment to the skin.
- If the skin remains irritated or infected after you remove the tick, have your dog checked out by your vet.
You can learn more about removing ticks here.
If you aren’t confident about removing the tick yourself, don’t be nervous about paying your vet a visit—they are there to help!
Can I catch Lyme disease from my dog?
No, Lyme disease can only be contracted by being bit by a tick that is infected by Borrelia. Lyme disease cannot be passed from dog to dog or from dog to human. However, if your dog has Lyme disease, then it is likely that YOU have also been in areas that have infected ticks. (You two do go on dog walks together, don’t you?) So, it’s a good idea to get tested for Lyme by your human doctor if your furry friend has been diagnosed.