When it comes to the wellbeing of our dogs, most of us will stop at nothing to make sure they are comfortable, happy, and live the longest life possible. One all too common ailment that many dogs will face in their lifetime is Lyme disease.
Lyme disease in dogs is very prevalent, especially if you live in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, or the Northern Pacific coast. Dog owners in these regions often know the risks associated with tick-borne illness.
The good news is that outcomes for dogs with Lyme disease are often very promising. The key is awareness about the disease, knowledge of symptoms, and an effective form of treatment. What’s even better? Vigorous efforts to prevent Lyme disease in dogs altogether.
With this overview of Lyme disease in dogs, you’ll know exactly how to keep the disease away and what to do if your dog does contract Lyme in their lifetime.
What is Lyme disease in dogs?
Lyme disease is a bacterial illness that is transmitted to dogs, humans and other mammals through specific types of ticks. The ticks will bite the larger mammal and transfer the bacteria into the blood of the victim. Once in your blood, the bacterial illness spreads through your body and creates problems in organs, bones, and overall health.
Lyme disease is named for the town where it was discovered in Lyme, Connecticut. The majority of Lyme cases recorded are in the Northeast of the United States, though every state has had instances of Lyme.
When it comes to dogs, Lyme disease occurs when a tick bites your dog and has the opportunity to feed on your dog’s blood for an extended period of time. The CDC reports that it takes over 24 hours of a tick being attached for Lyme disease to transfer, but new studies say it could transfer at a faster rate than initially thought (source).
Ticks cannot fly or jump. Their only means of movement is crawling. For this reason, tall, grassy areas tend to be tick havens. When your dog brushes against tall grass or plants, ticks take the opportunity to grab on and crawl to a spot to bite your dog.
Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs
After your dog is bitten by an infected tick, even if Lyme disease has transferred, it often takes months before symptoms show. In fact, some dogs will test positive for Lyme disease for years and never show chronic symptoms. Veterinarians often refer to this as the disease lying “dormant”.
All three of my dogs have Lyme disease, but we’ve only had to treat one of them when symptoms started to flair. According to Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, only 5-10% of infected animals will ever show clinical signs of Lyme disease, and these signs typically show up between 2-5 months after infection (source).
What symptoms should you look out for in an infected dog:
- Lameness, sudden unexplained limping, or nonsensical limping (changing the affected body part daily)
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Joint swelling
- Stiffness, discomfort, or pain
- Noticeable fatigue or lack of interest in activity
- Loss of appetite
- In more progressed cases: signs of serious kidney complications, neurological defects, or extreme arthritis
If you are noticing these symptoms and have found ticks on your dog, or you live in an area where ticks are prevalent, it’s a good idea to head to the vet. Your vet will consider your dog’s risk factors for Lyme and symptoms, and likely order a blood test to diagnose Lyme.
In areas where Lyme is very prevalent (much of the Northeast) your vet may recommend yearly Lyme screenings. Keep in mind, your dog can test positive for Lyme without needing treatment, but it’s helpful to know if they are a carrier in the event that symptoms do occur.
Treatment for Lyme disease in dogs
Typical treatment for Lyme disease in dogs is a 30-day course of the antibiotic Doxycycline. Your vet will determine if treatment is necessary by weighing the pros and cons of treatment based on your dog’s symptoms. If they are not displaying clinical symptoms, treatment may not be necessary.
If your dog is showing symptoms, you will likely see improvement in their symptoms quickly after beginning the course of antibiotics. It’s important that you complete the entire prescription. Once treatment is complete you vet may test your dog again for the effectiveness of treatment. This would be a decrease in the presence of Lyme antibodies by 40% within 6-8 weeks (source).
Preventing Lyme disease in dogs
As a dog owner, there are many proactive ways to prevent Lyme disease in your dog. With the right prevention techniques, it is likely your dog will live a life free from Lyme (source).
- Check your dog daily for ticks, especially after spending time in wooded areas or areas with tall grass. Be sure to check between your dog’s toes, in and around their ears and eyes, and under their tail
- Take ticks off of your dog as soon as you find them. Remember, it takes a while for the disease to transfer, so the shorter length of time the tick is attached to your dog, the better
- Use flea and tick prevention medication or collars. This can be in the form of a monthly topical treatment, collar or pill. There are also tick sprays available on the market. The best way to choose a preventative preparation is to discuss options with your veterinarian.
- Keep the grass in your yard mowed as short as possible to minimize ticks in your immediate vicinity
- Discuss the Lyme disease vaccination with your vet. It is not appropriate for all dogs but may be a good fit for yours
Keep your dog safe from Lyme disease
Now you know what Lyme disease in dogs is and what symptoms to look for. The good news is that there is a lot you can do to prevent Lyme in dogs, and even if your dog does contract the disease, their prognosis is very good.
With a strong course of antibiotics and early detection, your dog likely won’t suffer any lasting effects after their infection. Have you experienced Lyme disease in your dog? Share your story below!