Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-borne illnesses in North America, with over 300,000 cases diagnosed in humans each year2. Our canine companions are also at risk, especially in areas where infected ticks are prevalent.
If left untreated, Lyme disease can have devastating effects in dogs. In some severe cases, these complications can even result in death. Regular veterinary check-ups and early intervention are essential for limiting potential complications of Lyme disease in dogs.
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi that is transmitted by ticks1. In areas of dense vegetation, marshlands, and thick forests, Lyme disease is one of the most common canine diseases. The disease occurs in both dogs and humans.
Ticks become infected when they feed on small infected mammals like mice, squirrels and birds that harbor the bacteria. The ticks then transmit the bacteria when they bite and feed on another animal.
Lyme disease affects dogs and humans in a similar way. If not treated promptly, it can lead to crippling symptoms.
How Do Dogs Get Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease in dogs is transmitted by the bite of infected ticks. The primary transmitter of Lyme disease to dogs are black-legged "deer" ticks5. Ticks live in wooded, brushy areas and long grasses. As dogs play and explore in these environments, ticks will crawl onto their skin and bite them.
Ticks cannot jump or fly, only crawl or climb. They wait on the edges of tall grass blades or other vegetation. When a host walks by, the tick scrambles onto its victim and searches for a place to bite.
The tick must be attached to the dog for 24-48 hours to transmit the bacteria4. When a tick bites a host, they pass the disease into the host's bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the disease moves throughout the host's body to specific organs or locations like the joints.
An infected dog cannot give Lyme disease to another dog or human. The disease can only be passed through the bite of an infected tick. But the tick that infected your dog can pass along the disease if it ends up in your home. Prompt removal of ticks can help prevent transmission of the Lyme disease bacteria.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs
Lyme disease can affect dogs in different ways. Many animals don't show symptoms at all, with only 5-10% displaying clinical signs of the disease1. Common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs include:
Fever (often erratic) - Dogs may have an intermittent fever, which frequently fluctuates. Monitoring temperature changes is crucial in these cases.
Lack of energy - A noticeable decrease in energy or lethargy can occur among dogs with Lyme disease. They may seem less eager to participate in usual activities or appear unusually tired.
Soreness or stiff joints - Dogs can experience general discomfort, often noticeable as stiffness, particularly in their joints. This can make it difficult for them to move around as they usually would.
Loss of appetite - Affected dogs could show less interest in their food. This loss of appetite can result in noticeable weight loss if left untreated.
Trouble getting off the floor, jumping, or using stairs - Dogs may struggle with movements that require joint flexibility such as getting up from a lying position, jumping or navigating stairs due to joint pain and inflammation.
Limping/Lameness - Intermittent or persistent limp may be seen in one or more legs and is often due to joint pain. You may observe them favoring one leg over others.
Swelling (of the lymph glands or joints) - Some dogs may show noticeable swelling in the lymph glands or joints, primarily due to inflammation and infection.
Generalized pain (can come and go) - Dogs with Lyme disease may show signs of generalized discomfort or pain, often seeming restless or uncomfortable. This condition may appear sporadic, coming and going unpredictably.
The signs of Lyme disease can be non-specific, so veterinary testing is needed to confirm the diagnosis. If Lyme disease is suspected, it’s important to have the dog examined by a vet as soon as possible.
If left to progress, Lyme disease can lead to more severe symptoms as the bacteria spreads throughout the body, causing damage to the kidneys, heart, joints, and nervous system4. Neurological symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs can include facial paralysis and seizures4. Early detection and treatment is key in minimizing long term symptoms and damage caused by the bacteria.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Lyme Disease in Dogs
Diagnosis of Lyme disease in dogs typically involves the veterinarian conducting a physical exam, assessing the history of symptoms, and running antibody blood tests4.
Upon confirmation of Lyme disease, the common line of treatment is a course of antibiotics for four weeks, but additional rounds of treatment may be necessary if symptoms persist4. Your vet may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to alleviate symptoms like fever and joint pain.
Can Lyme Disease Be Cured in Dogs?
While the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs can be resolved with early detection and treatment, some dogs may continue to test positive for the Lyme antibody throughout their lives. However, if your dog is healthy and asymptomatic, your vet may not recommend treatment3. Your vet may perform periodic blood tests to ensure your dog remains healthy, as it's possible for symptoms to come back at a later stage, including a risk of kidney disease3.
Proper monitoring and treatment can ensure a good quality of life for dogs diagnosed with Lyme disease.
How to Prevent Lyme Disease
The best way to deal with Lyme disease is to avoid getting it. Preventing Lyme disease in dogs starts with preventing exposure to ticks. There are a few key steps pet owners can take:
Don't let your dog run free in areas where ticks are prevalent. Establish safe play spaces, avoid high grasses, and manage yard foliage to keep your dog safe.
Keep your dog on a leash and stay on the trails. Pathways are usually clear of foliage that ticks can use as launch points to attach to your dog.
Check yourself and your dog after every outing. Performing thorough checks on both you and your dog ensures any hitchhiking ticks are seen and removed promptly.
Be meticulous when checking for ticks. Ticks like to hide between toes, in the ears, under the tail, on the head, and on the belly. Take time to comb through your dog's fur, check discrete areas, and look for minor bumps or irregularities that could be ticks.
If you find a tick, remove it right away. Ticks usually take over 24 hours before they can transmit diseases like Lyme to your dog. Prompt removal can prevent disease transmission.
Use tweezers and grasp the tick close to your dog's skin. Pull the tick straight out. Do not twist or jerk, which can leave parts of the tick in your dog's skin, which can lead to infection.
Take your dog to your vet for a tick examination or removal. Your veterinarian can perform a comprehensive tick check and safely remove any ticks present.
Ask your vet for an appropriate flea and tick guard product. They can recommend various products—including spot-on treatments, sprays, or collars—suited to your dog’s lifestyle and your local tick species.
Consider oral tick preventatives. Chewable tick preventatives can be an easy and effective way to protect your dog from ticks.
If you live in a tick-infested area, ask your veterinarian about getting your dog a Lyme disease vaccine. It can be an extra layer of protection for your dog’s health, especially if they are exposed to Lyme disease carrying ticks frequently.
By being diligent about tick prevention and aware of the risks, you can greatly reduce their dog's chances of contracting Lyme disease. Being proactive is key.
“Lyme Disease,” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, accessed January 12, 2024, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/animal-health-diagnostic-center/laboratories/serology-immunology/lyme-disease.
“How many people get Lyme disease?,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accessed January 12, 2024, https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/stats/humancases.html.
“Lyme Disease (Borreliosis), Information for Dog Owners,” The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, accessed January 12, 2024, https://vet.osu.edu/sites/vet.osu.edu/files/documents/preventive-medicine/Lyme%20Disease%20Fact%20Sheet%2020200123.pdf.
“Lyme Disease (Lyme Borreliosis) in Dogs,” Merck Veterinary Manual, accessed January 12, 2024, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/disorders-affecting-multiple-body-systems-of-dogs/lyme-disease-lyme-borreliosis-in-dogs.
“Lyme Disease in Dogs,” VCA Canada Animal Hospitals, accessed January 12, 2024, https://vcacanada.com/know-your-pet/lyme-disease-in-dogs.