Lyme disease, prevention, and treatment in dogs

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As ticks are becoming more widespread in North America, Lyme disease is a growing concern for dog owners. Dogs are susceptible to tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease. Read on to learn:

  • What is Lyme disease, and how do dogs catch it?
  • How do I know if my dog has Lyme disease?
  • How will a vet diagnose and treat Lyme in dogs?
  • Can I prevent Lyme disease in my dog?

While 90 to 95% of infected dogs do not show symptoms, Lyme disease can be fatal and is carried in up to 50% of ticks in some populations. Luckily, there are many ways Lyme disease can be prevented in dogs and detected early.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease, or Lyme borreliosis, develops from a bacterial infection spread by ticks. The disease can affect dogs, humans, and other wild animals. Vaccination and tick prevention are crucial to prevent Lyme disease in dogs. Prevention is easier and less expensive than treatment for the disease.

How do dogs catch Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is only spread through tick bites, so dogs can't catch Lyme disease from other infected animals or infect their owners. As an infected tick latches onto a dog for a blood meal, it can pass the bacteria into the dog’s bloodstream. The best steps to minimize the risk of Lyme disease in dogs are:

  • Regularly use vet-recommended tick prevention
  • Check your dog for ticks daily
  • Remove any attached ticks promptly
  • Limit exposure to tick habitats
  • Vaccinate your dog against Lyme disease

Where is Lyme disease more common?

Ticks prefer to live in temperate climates in wooded areas, brush, shrubs, and tall grass. They are most active during early spring and late fall, but remain active during all warm months. There are four species of tick known to spread Lyme disease in North America, but the majority of the cases are transmitted by the deer tick, also known as the black-legged tick. The risk of infection is higher in areas where this tick species is abundant but has been found in all 50 U.S. states and all regions of Canada. 95% of cases of canine Lyme disease occur in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and Upper Midwest United States, as well as the southern and coastal regions of Canada.

What are the symptoms of a Lyme disease infection in dogs?

Many dogs who are infected with Lyme disease show few to no symptoms. In fact, only 5-10% of infected dogs show clinical signs of the disease. Those who do show symptoms may have:

Lyme disease can also lead to a secondary kidney disease called Lyme nephritis that leads to kidney failure. This complication, though rare, is severe and often fatal.

In the 5-10% of dogs that exhibit clinical signs of Lyme disease, symptoms usually don’t develop for two to six months or more after the initial tick bite. Vaccination, tick prevention, regular Lyme testing, and tick checks help prevent Lyme disease.

How is canine Lyme disease diagnosed and treated?

Veterinarians diagnose Lyme disease in dogs based on a blood test that checks for the presence of antibodies against the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease. Dogs in high-risk areas with large tick populations often undergo annual Lyme testing. Treatment for canine Lyme disease includes:

  • Antibiotic therapy
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Pain management
  • Supportive care for other symptoms

The disease can relapse in the future with repeated exposure to the bacteria through infected tick bites. Early stages of Lyme disease, if antibiotic treatments are given quickly, have a good prognosis. However, if the bacteria infects the heart, kidneys, or nervous system, the prognosis is poor.

Can Lyme disease be prevented in dogs?

Lyme disease is a serious illness. Luckily, there are many preventative measures that dog owners can take to prevent the disease in their pets. A virtual vet appointment is an excellent way to choose the right tick preventative for you and your dog.

Canine tick prevention

The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to simply prevent tick bites from occurring. There are topical, or spot-on solutions, oral medications, and tick collars available that help repel and kill ticks to prevent disease transmission. These preventatives are often combined with flea and heartworm prevention. It’s important to discuss tick prevention with a veterinarian to ensure the safety and efficacy of the product. Not all tick preventatives work the same way and some are unsafe and ineffective. Always inform your vet about other animals living in the household when discussing external parasite control. Cats are highly sensitive to many topical products and some tick prevention products that are safe for dogs are toxic to cats, even through indirect contact with another pet.

Limit tick exposure

Limiting exposure to ticks can help reduce the likelihood of acquiring a tick-borne illness. Destroy tick habitat around the home and yard, including tall grass, brush, and shrubs. Discourage wildlife, especially deer populations, from entering the yard, as many of them carry ticks that can drop off and hide. Finally, avoid wooded, grassy, and shrubby areas where ticks are abundant. If walking or hiking, stay away from tall grass or shrubs and check for ticks before returning home. Limiting exposure does not prevent a tick from attaching and does not kill ticks that do find their way to your dog. Check your dog daily for ticks and remove them promptly.

Canine Lyme disease vaccination

Lyme disease vaccines are available and safe for dogs. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) urges dog owners to consider the vaccine if living in a high-risk area. While the vaccine helps, it does not replace the need for ongoing, vet recommended flea and tick control. The Lyme vaccine does not protect from tick bites and other tick-borne diseases. Tick prevention is still needed even with the Lyme disease vaccination.

What should I do if my dog has a tick bite?

If you find a tick attached to your dog, the first step is to quickly and safely remove it. Remove a tick by grasping it firmly with tweezers near the skin surface and pulling firmly straight outward until the tick releases. Do not crush, twist, or squish the tick and always wear disposable gloves. Dispose of the tick by dropping it into rubbing alcohol, wrapping it tightly with tape, or flushing it down a toilet. Wash the tick bite with soap and water. Next, thoroughly check your dog, yourself, and any other pets or family members for ticks.

Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases take weeks to months after infection to show symptoms. A veterinary visit is not necessary after removing a small number of ticks unless signs of illness or infection are present or in the case of a heavy tick infestation. If you need assistance removing a tick at home or have questions about Lyme disease transmission, an online vet at Vetster can quickly address your concerns.

FAQ - Lyme disease, prevention, and treatment in dogs

What are the common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs?

Only 5-10% of dogs infected with Lyme disease show symptoms. These symptoms can include swollen joints, painful joints, swollen lymph nodes, lack of appetite, and lethargy. Dogs may also display the bullseye rash seen in human Lyme disease patients, but this is not common and is usually milder and resolves more quickly than in humans.

Can Lyme disease be cured in dogs?

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that can be treated with antibiotics. Dogs with clinical signs usually start to improve 24-48 hours after starting antibiotics. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent chronic inflammatory changes in joints and connective tissues. However, Lyme disease can also reoccur with repeated exposure to the bacteria through tick bites.

Can dogs spread Lyme disease to humans?

Lyme disease can only be spread through bites from infected ticks. A dog cannot directly pass Lyme disease to a person. It is theoretically possible for an infected tick to crawl off a dog and onto another pet or person in the house, but typically a tick stays attached to a single host until it gets full and drops off. Ticks only search for a host to feed from during specific periods of their life cycle, so a full tick isn’t likely to feed again right away.

Is Lyme disease serious in dogs?

Up to 90-95% of infected dogs show no clinical signs of the disease. However, Lyme disease can sometimes be deadly in dogs and lead to rare complications. Regular Lyme disease testing, tick prevention, limiting tick exposure, and the Lyme disease vaccination all help to reduce the possibility of severe illness developing.