How to Treat Lyme Disease in Dogs

lyme disease in dogs
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Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States. It affects dogs, humans, and other animals and can lead to arthritis, kidney disease, nervous system disorders, and heart problems. Prompt treatment is important to prevent long-term complications. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent Lyme disease in dogs.

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an infection of the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that is spread through tick bites. Bacteria enter the animal's body while the tick is feeding and then migrate through the tissue to the joint, causing acute arthritis. If the animal is not treated, the bacteria may cause damage to the kidneys, nervous system, or heart.

Lyme disease was named after the town of Lyme, Connecticut, where it was first identified in 1975. Since then, Lyme disease has been reported in every state in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world. In the U.S., it is most common in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast regions.

Children and older adults are most commonly diagnosed with Lyme disease. Among domestic mammals, Lyme disease often affects dogs, horses, and cattle. Cats can also get Lyme disease, but this is uncommon.

Signs of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Signs of Lyme Disease in Dogs

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Swollen, painful joints (dogs may be reluctant to move)
  • Lameness in one or more limbs
  • Swollen lymph nodes

The signs of Lyme disease vary from case to case. No signs may be seen, especially at first. When signs do appear, they may be vague and can easily be mistaken for another health problem.

In dogs, the most common signs of Lyme disease include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, swollen lymph nodes, and painful or swollen joints that cause lameness. The lameness may be intermittent and can shift to different limbs. Some dogs will be reluctant to move because of joint pain.

Without treatment, Lyme disease will affect the kidneys, causing vomiting, increased thirst and urination, and further loss of appetite. Dogs who develop kidney failure can become very sick and may not respond to treatment.

Nervous system issues are more common in humans but may also occur in dogs, potentially leading to facial paralysis and seizures. Secondary heart disease is rare but can cause respiratory distress and collapse.

The signs of Lyme disease in dogs are very different than those in humans. People may develop serious and sometimes long-lasting symptoms from a Lyme disease infection. However, only about 10 percent of dogs infected with B. burgdorferi will develop symptoms that require treatment.

Cause of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria and transmitted through a tick bite. A tick becomes infected with the bacteria when feeding on infected mice or other small animals. The tick then spreads the bacteria when biting other animals. It takes one to two days for an attached tick to transmit the bacteria to the host. Because of this, prompt removal of ticks is essential to prevent the spread of Lyme disease.

There are four species of ticks known to transmit Lyme disease, but most infections are caused by the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). This tiny tick is often found in tall grasses, bushes, and wooded areas. Upon sensing a host, the tick jumps on the animal and attaches its mouthparts to begin its blood meal. These ticks are most active in spring and fall but can be seen any time of year.

Lyme disease is not transmitted directly between animals or humans; a tick bite is required to transmit the disease. However, ticks can enter the home on pets and jump onto humans or other pets in the home.

Diagnosis

Vets use a combination of clinical signs, history, and lab results to diagnose Lyme disease in dogs. There is no specific test for Lyme disease, but there are tests to measure B. burgdorferi antigens in the blood. The presence of antigens indicates that the dog was exposed to the bacteria at some point, but it does not mean the dog has Lyme disease.

The vet will likely perform an array of tests to rule out other health problems and determine whether or not the bacteria has affected the kidneys or other organs and systems. This may include blood and urine tests, radiographs (X-rays), and collection and analysis of joint fluid.

Treatment

Dogs with Lyme disease are typically treated with antibiotics for several weeks. Most dogs experience a rapid improvement in symptoms soon after starting antibiotics. Treatment may not completely clear the bacteria, but it can produce a state where no symptoms are present.

Dogs with kidney disease will require a longer course of antibiotics along with additional medications and treatments to manage the kidney disease.

Dogs with nervous system or heart problems may need to be referred to a veterinary specialist for advanced diagnostics and treatments.

How to Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs

Tick control is the best way to prevent Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. Check your dog for ticks daily and remove them immediately. This is especially important in peak tick season (spring and fall) and after your dog spends time in areas where ticks are known to thrive. Keep grass and brush trimmed in your yard so ticks have fewer places to hide. Consider treating your yard for ticks if you live in an area where ticks are prevalent.

Young man taking care of a dog
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Tick prevention products are great at keeping ticks from attaching to dogs. Many flea control products also contain ingredients to kill ticks. Ask your veterinarian about the best tick control options for your dog and be sure to follow your vet's advice when using these products.

Removal of a dog tick
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Your vet may recommend vaccination against Lyme disease if you live in an area where it is common. Many veterinary specialists do not recommend routine vaccination because so few dogs develop symptoms of Lyme disease and those that do tend to respond well to treatment. Vaccination is not a substitute for tick preventatives.

Vaccination is not 100 percent effective and is only helpful in dogs that have not been exposed to B. burgdorferi. However, vaccination before exposure can help prevent dogs from getting Lyme disease and also prevent them from becoming a carrier of the bacteria (spreading it to ticks that can then transmit it to other animals).

Dogs are generally vaccinated at around 12 weeks of age and given a booster two to four weeks later. Annual re-vaccination is necessary for continued immunity. The vaccine will ideally be administered before tick season each year.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
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  2. Straubinger, R. K., et al. “Clinical Manifestations, Pathogenesis, and Effect of Antibiotic Treatment on Lyme Borreliosis in Dogs.” Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift, vol. 110, no. 24, 1998, pp. 874–881.

  3. Lyme Disease (Lyme Borreliosis) In Dogs. Merck Veterinary Manual

  4. Lyme Disease. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine