The Ultimate Guide To Lyme Disease In Dogs: Everything You Need to Know!

    Lyme disease is a serious condition that can affect both dogs and humans. If you’re a dog owner, it’s important to be familiar with Lyme disease so you can take steps to prevent your pet from getting sick. In this article, we’ll outline everything you need to know about Lyme disease in dogs, from the symptoms to the treatments. We’ll also provide tips on how to avoid getting your dog sick, and what to do if your dog is already infected. So keep reading for the comprehensive guide to Lyme disease in dogs!

Transmitted through the bite of a tick, Borrelia burgdorferi is the scientific name of the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease.  These microscopic bacteria are a type called spirochete… they have a coiled or cork-screw appearance under the microscope.  The disease is actually named after the town in Connecticut where an early outbreak was was first described… Lyme, Connecticut.  (Remember, ticks don’t cause the disease, they merely harbor and transmit the bacteria that cause the disease.)  And being fussy little bacteria, not just any ol’ genus of tick will do as a carrier.  At least three known species of ticks can transmit Lyme Disease.  However, the great majority of Lyme Disease transmissions are due to the bite of a very tiny tick commonly called the Deer Tick, or Black-legged Tick.  Its scientific name is Ixodes (pronounced eye-zod-ease) scapularis.  Lyme Disease in dogs has been reported in every state but certain geographical areas are much more likely to harbor bacteria-carrying ticks than others.

Lyme Disease in Dogs

Lyme Life Cycle

Lyme disease in Dogs

This photo shows the AMERICAN DOG TICK (Dermacenter variablis) male and female on the left edge of a postage stamp.  Four Black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) are on the right edge of the stamp.  There is a female (largest tick) and male and two nymphal stages of the Black-legged tick.

    The tick’s body size varies depending on the stage of its two-year life cycle.  I show my clients a life-sized photo of the tick whenever I diagnose a case of Lyme Disease because often the dog owners are skeptical about the presence of ticks… “It can’t be Lyme Disease, Dr. Dunn.  This dog has not had a single tick all year.  I know because I’ve checked her every time she’s come indoors.” 
    Smaller than the head of a pin, these ticks are hard to see!  They don’t glow in the dark.  They don’t make the dog itch.  And they are very quiet about what they do.  Yes, cats do contract Lyme Disease but very uncommonly.
    The Ixodes tick is often called the deer tick because the adult stage of the tick prefers to feed on deer.  However, it will feed on other creatures such as skunks, birds, canines and people.  How do these ticks come to carry the Lyme Disease-producing bacteria in their tiny bodies?  Here’s what happens:

Signs of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Of the hundreds of cases of canine Lyme Disease that I have seen, over 90 percent of canine patients were admitted with signs of Pups can contract Lyme Disease, too! limping (usually one foreleg), lymph node swelling in the affected limb, and a temperature of 103 degrees (101 to 102.5 degrees is normal).  The limping usually progresses over three to four days from mild and barely noticeable to complete disuse of the painful leg.  Once the dog starts to be affected by the bacteria, Lyme Disease can progress from a mild discomfort to the stage where a dog will be in such joint and muscle pain it will refuse to move; it is not uncommon for an owner to have to carry a sick dog into the animal hospital.  Over the span of two or three days a dog can progress from normal to completely unable to walk due to generalized joint pain.  In addition to joint damage, the bacteria can affect the dog’s heart muscle and nerve tissue.  If the disease is diagnosed in time, treatment can cure the dog before permanent joint or nerve damage occurs.  Certain antibiotics, such as the Tetracyclines, are very helpful in eliminating the disease.
    Generally, the diagnosis of Lyme Disease is based upon clinical signs and history.  For example, if a dog ran or played normally a few days ago, has had no signs of trauma or previous arthritic discomfort, and now displays tenderness upon palpation of the affected limb and has a mild fever and swollen lymph nodes, I’m going to seriously consider Lyme Disease as a possible diagnosis.
    On the other hand, just as in human medicine, Lyme Disease is called “The Great Imitator” because it has often been mistakenly diagnosed when another disorder is present, such as an autoimmune disease, lymph tissue cancer, Blastomycosis, or septicemia.  Just as vexing is the fact that at times other similar-appearing diseases are diagnosed when the culprit is actually Lyme Disease.  There are published reports of Lyme Disease being misdiagnosed and overdiagnosed in human medicine.

    Keeping other disorders in mind, if I suspect Lyme Disease, I start treatment immediately, generally prescribing an antibiotic such as tetracycline and possibly some aspirin if the dog is in a lot of pain.  Many veterinarians do not wait for blood tests to confirm the tentative diagnosis because in dogs the information obtained may be confusing and require too much time to hear back from the lab.  I have seen patients that from clinical experience I know have Lyme Disease, yet their blood test curiously indicates no exposure to the disease.   And there are numerous cases of normal-appearing, healthy dogs with positive blood tests for Lyme Disease.
    Fortunately, over ninety percent of dogs treated within the first week of obvious signs of Lyme Disease will respond rapidly to treatment with a tetracycline antibiotic.  This medicine is administered for at least three weeks.  In my experience, five percent of dogs will have some type of relapse of signs such as cardiac or neurological difficulties even after treatment .  Some of these patients will experience chronic, lifelong joint pain from the damage caused by the bacteria and its direct and indirect stress to joint tissues.  The earlier the antibiotic is started in the course of the disease, the better the patient’s chances of a complete recovery.

Can a dog contract Lyme Disease a second time?  Yes.  But, quite honestly, we don’t know for sure if the reoccurrence is a second, distinct infection or a flare-up of the original episode (because the Borrelia organism replicates quite slowly).  And, since dogs can harbor the bacteria in their tissues a long time before the disease is evident, Lyme Disease cases are showing up all year long.  In the northern states, however, the summer months are the busiest for Lyme Disease case presentations.

Prevention of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Lyme Disease in Dogs
Prevention of Lyme Disease in Dogs

There are  three Lyme vaccines approved for use in dogs.  Keep in mind, though, that no vaccine for humans or canines will be 100% effective and protective against the disease.  As with any vaccine there are a number of variables that can impact each individual’s response to a vaccine.  Think of vaccination for Lyme Disease as one tool you can use to decrease your dog’s chances of contracting the disease.  For helpful information on the advisability of vaccinating your dog, contact a vaccine manufacturer or discuss this disease with your veterinarian.
    The first and most obvious technique to assist in prevention is to keep the tick population  to a minimum.  There are safe and effective insecticides that can be used in the dog’s usual environment  (e. g., a 50-foot radius around the dog house).  In addition, there are new chemical agents that you apply once a month to small areas of the dog’s skin; thereafter, the agent spreads over the dog’s body via the oil on its skin and kills ticks before they get a chance to inject the bacteria into the dog via the tick’s saliva.  Sprays, collars, powders and dips are often used too (in these products  the chemical ingredient permethrin is more effective than pyrethrin).
    Please note:  All of these agents will kill the tick after it climbs aboard the dog.  The longer the tick is attached and biting, the greater the risk of bacterial transmission… IF the tick carries the Borrelia bacteria in the first place.  Remember, no repellent will keep every single tick off a dog.  Sprays, collars and dips repel ticks to some degree, with collars being the least effective. 
    Hunting dog owners in northern Wisconsin have found that spraying their dogs with a topical spray just prior to an outing in the woods decreases the numbers of ticks picked up by their dogs.  Caution!  Do not “double up” on insecticides or repellants.  If your veterinarian has prescribed a topical once-a-month flea and tick product, always consult your veterinarian before applying any additional insecticide/repellent product!  By the way, insect repellents designed to be applied to clothing should never be used in dogs.  To be specific, DEET is toxic to canines.  If you own a kennel, check with your veterinarian about tick control procedures tailored for your kennel setup.
    Examine your dog after outdoor excursions and carefully pick off the ticks you find.   But remember how tiny the Ixodes larvae and nymphs are; they’ll be a challenge to remove without crushing them. With tiny tweezers, gently grasp the tick as close to the dog’s skin (or your own!) as possible and gently pull away from the skin.  Ticks do not burrow under or into the skin but rather attach to the skin surface with two claw-like mouth parts.  Try not to crush the tick.  After removal, cleanse the area with antiseptic.
    Humans should wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible to prevent the ticks from contacting the skin.  And the use of light-colored clothing will make observation of the dark-colored tick easier.  Other hints:  Avoid fields and grassy areas; apply repellents according to directions; and examine yourself closely for ticks after a day in the field. 
We live in a diverse, intricate  and ever-changing natural world.  It is full of challenges, always prompting us to better understand diseases and vectors, predator and prey, life cycles and evolution.  The bacteria that causes Lyme Disease has found a niche in this natural world and will share the planet with us for a long time.  The challenge is to learn all we can about it!

There is a lot of confusion surrounding Lyme Disease in Dogs, and as a result, many dogs are getting infected without even knowing it. In this blog post, we will provide you with everything you need to know about Lyme Disease in Dogs, from the basics to more specific details. By reading this article, you will be able to provide your dog with the best possible care and protect him or her from this serious disease. So, if you have a dog that seems to be struggling with some unknown symptoms, be sure to read through this blog post and find out what you can do to help!

Frequently Asked Questions

How does Lyme disease affect dogs long term?

Lyme illness can cause renal failure, major heart difficulties, neurological abnormalities, and long-term joint discomfort and arthritis in your dog if left untreated or treated too late.

Does Lyme disease shorten a dog’s life?

Lyme disease can cause chronic problems with the kidneys, heart, and nervous system. The most prevalent chronic condition in dogs is renal failure, which is potentially permanent (a form called glomerulonephritis). Kidney failure can shorten a pet’s life expectancy and diminish its quality of life.

What causes Lyme disease to flare up in dogs?

Even with medications, Lyme disease can remain in your dog’s body. When a dog’s immune system is inhibited or weakened, such as during times of stress, the disease typically flares up. Repeated Lyme disease recurrences can be treated with the same drug.

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