Lyme Disease in dogs is a serious condition that can lead to numerous complications if not treated on time. Learn how to recognize the symptoms and what are the treatment options.
Lyme disease is a serious bacterial disease that is spread by ticks and can affect both dogs and humans. It is the most common tick-transmitted disease in the United States and Europe. Lyme disease is not only difficult to detect and treat, but it can also cause serious, lifelong problems for infected dogs. Therefore, it is best to take measures to prevent your dog (and you!) from getting this condition.
In this article we will also discuss everything you need to know about Lyme disease in dogs from the symptoms you need to watch out for, and how to best prevent your dog from catching this condition. We will also take a look at how a veterinarian will diagnose and treat Lyme disease in dogs.
What Is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is caused by a spiral-shaped bacteria called Borreliaburgdorferi.
This disease is transmitted to dogs through a tick bite. Once an infected tick bites a dog, the bacteria is transmitted into the dog’s bloodstream. The disease spreads around the dog’s body and may localize and cause problems in different parts of the body such as the joints or the kidneys. This bacteria can cause serious and recurring health problems in some dogs. (1)
The most common tick to carry Lyme disease is the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) in the United States and the castor bean tick (Ixodes ricinus) in Europe. (2) Ticks are normally found in long grass, forests, and marshy areas near rivers and lakes. People and animals are commonly bitten by ticks when they are outside enjoying time in green areas, walking, hiking or camping. (3)
What Are Ticks?
Ticks belong to the arachnid group of bugs. Adult ticks have eight legs, a round body, and are just a few millimeters wide. These nasty little bugs have sharp mouthparts which they use to attach to the dog’s skin and feed on its blood. They swell and get bigger after they have eaten. Ticks can attach anywhere on your dog’s body, but tend to be found on the feet, in between the toes, around the ears or under the tail. It can be quite a surprise the first time that you find one (or lots!) on your dog.
Is Your Dog At Risk Of Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease can only be carried and transmitted by certain ticks. Therefore, the risk of your dog getting Lyme disease depends on where you live, and what type of ticks there are in your area. Talk to your veterinarian if you are unsure if your dog is at risk.
Studies suggest that Lyme disease is transmitted after the tick has been attached to the dog’s skin for 36 to 48 hours. Therefore, it is important to safely remove ticks immediately, and regularly use a tick preventative treatment.
The disease is pretty widespread in the United States and Canada. The CDC and Pet Health Network both have useful maps to show what tick-borne diseases are in your area. In Europe, the highest incidence has been reported in Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovenia. (4)
Can Lyme Disease Affect People?
Lyme disease can affect people. Lyme disease is zoonotic, meaning that it can be transferred from animals to humans. However, thankfully you won’t catch it directly from your dog. A tick needs to bite and feed on an infected dog, then bite a human, to transfer the disease. Therefore, it is important that both you and your dog take precautions to prevent exposure to ticks. Talk to your doctor about the risks of Lyme disease in humans if you are concerned.
What Are The Symptoms Of Lyme Disease In Dogs?
Lyme disease in dogs is not a straightforward disease process. Most infected dogs won’t show signs for months after infection and it is estimated that only around 5% to 10% of infected dogs will develop clinical disease. (5)
Common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs include:
- Decreased appetite
- Intermittent Lameness
- Shifting leg lameness
- Sore, swollen joints
- Enlarged lymph nodes
Many canine patients with Lyme disease present to the vet clinic with lethargy, reduced appetite and generalized pain or limping (which can shift from one limb to the other).
In some cases, the disease may affect the kidneys and cause more serious clinical signs. The kidney form of the disease is less common, but often life-threatening. Signs that Lyme disease may be affecting the kidneys include vomiting, lethargy, weight loss, and reduced appetite.
How Is Lyme Disease Diagnosed In Dogs?
In some areas with high levels of ticks and Lyme disease, many healthy dogs will have a yearly screening to check for Lyme disease infection. This is because many dogs infected with the disease don’t show any symptoms.
If a dog is ill, a veterinarian may suspect Lyme disease based on the dog’s symptoms and its clinical history. The diagnosis can then be confirmed using blood tests, to check if the infection is active and recent. (6)
The two most commonly used blood tests to check for Lyme disease infection are called the C6 test and the Quant C6 test.
The C6 test, also known as the 4Dx snap test, checks for C6 antibodies against the bacteria Borrelia (Lyme disease). If the test result is positive these antibodies are present, which suggests an active infection. The antibodies can be detected from four weeks after an infected tick bites a dog. This is part of a screening test (4Dx) which also checks for other tick-borne diseases (Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Lyme disease, and Heartworm). Usually, this snap screening test can be quickly completed in the vet clinic.
- Quant C6
If a dog has a positive C6 test result, this means that antibodies to C6 were found, and the dog has been exposed to Lyme disease. The next step is to do a Quant C6 test, which helps to decide if the levels of antibodies are high enough to warrant treatment. If there are no signs of illness, then treatment may not be necessary.
The veterinarian may recommend additional blood tests to check kidney function and the overall health of the dog. A urinalysis is often carried out too to check for signs of urinary infection or protein in the urine, to help decide if antibiotic treatment is necessary.
Do All Dogs With Lyme Disease Require Treatment?
This is where it starts to become a grey area. The decision to treat a dog that has a positive test result for Lyme disease can be controversial as many infected dogs show no symptoms of the illness.
Reasons that treatment would be advised include:
- A medium to the high value of C6
- The dog is ill with symptoms of Lyme disease
- A history of illness linked to Lyme disease within the past year
- Kidneys are affected (high levels of protein in the urine)
An owner with a positively infected dog needs to work closely with their veterinarian to decide what is best for them and their pooch.
How Is Lyme Disease Treated In Dogs?
Lyme disease in dogs can be treated with antibiotics. Usually, doxycycline is the first choice of antibiotic, and the treatment course is around 4 weeks long.
However, occasionally the initial infection can recur months later, or the dog will have a new infection from another infected tick.
Scientists and veterinarians are divided over the effectiveness of treatment for Lyme disease, with some studies suggesting that the infection may not fully go away even after antibiotic treatment. Some dogs may even continue to have life long problems with this disease even when antibiotic treatment has been given, while in other dogs the infection clears up completely.
Can Lyme Disease Be Prevented?
There are some ways you can reduce your dog’s risk of getting infected with Lyme disease. In this case, prevention is better than cure, so it is important that if you live in an area where Lyme disease is prevalent that you take measures to protect your dog (and yourself!).
Here are some ways to help prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease: (7)
- Inspect your dog daily for ticks:
Get in the habit of checking your dog every day. Especially check the feet, in between the toes, around the eyes and ears and without forgetting around his bottom and under the tail. Ticks like to hide in all these places and can be easily missed if your dog has long hair.
- Remove ticks as soon as possible:
The longer the tick is attached the more likely it is to transmit infection. Some studies have found that a tick needs to be attached for at least 36hours before infecting the dog with Lyme disease. Therefore, don’t wait around before getting rid of those nasty little bugs.
- Learn the proper tick removal technique:
If you don’t remove a tick properly you could leave behind their sharp mouthparts stuck in the dog’s skin. Invest in a tick remover product or a fine pair of tweezers, and learn the right way to remove them – it is easy! If you still aren’t sure then ask your veterinarian to show you how.
- Use a veterinary-approved flea and tick treatment:
There are lots of veterinary approved flea and tick preparations available, that are safe, reliable and efficient. There are chewy tablets, liquid spot-on, sprays or collars-so you are bound to find one that suits you and your dog’s needs. They can help repel ticks, or kill ticks once they bite. Talk to your veterinarian to find one that is appropriate for your dog.
- Get a Lyme disease vaccination:
Get your dog vaccinated against Lyme disease, especially if you live in a high-risk area or travel to one with your dog frequently. This vaccine can help prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease if it is bitten by infected ticks. An annual vaccine is needed to boost immunity. Talk to your veterinarian to check if the Lyme disease vaccine is a good option for your dog.
- Avoid high-risk areas:
Some areas are a higher risk for Lyme disease than others. Forests, long grass and marshy areas are where ticks like to hide out, so you could avoid them in endemic tick areas. If you want to take your walking in these areas, try to stick to the trails and avoid going into thick vegetation.
- Ask your vet to conduct a tick exam:
If you are worried that you might have missed any ticks, then ask your veterinarian or veterinary nurse to conduct a tick examination.
- Mow your lawn:
Now there is an extra reason to mow your lawn regularly. Environmental tick control even includes your own garden and involves keeping the grass mowed and vegetation short. You could even construct tick barriers on property edges to try to keep ticks out.
If you try to follow some or all of these preventative measures, you will really help to reduce your dog’s risk of catching this disease. Now, let’s find out the best way to remove a tick safely from your dog.
How To Remove A Tick From Your Dog
Remember to check your dog daily, especially if he has been in a tick infected area or exploring undergrowth. The sooner the tick is removed the better. You can use clean fine-tipped tweezers or there are several tick removal devices available online or from pet stores. You might also require help to restrain your dog if he is wriggly.
- Use fine-tipped clean tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the dog’s skin’s surface as possible.
- Pull upwards in a straight direction with steady, even pressure. Twisting the tick can cause the mouth-parts to break off and stay stuck in the skin.
- If this does happen, don’t panic, just carefully try to remove the mouth-parts with clean tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth-parts easily with clean tweezers, don’t dig too much. Seek veterinary attention if the area becomes swollen or sore.
- After the tick is removed, the area should be thoroughly cleaned with a little bit of rubbing alcohol on cotton wool, or mild soap and water.
Do not crush a tick with your fingers, some tick-borne infections can be transmitted to humans through wounds or small scratches on the skin. Get rid of a live tick by putting it in rubbing alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, or crushing it between two solid surfaces.
It is a good idea to work closely with your veterinarian to decide which preventative measures are best for your dog, and if you live in a high-risk area you might want to get your dog tested for Lyme disease infection every year. In the case of Lyme disease prevention really is better than cure, especially as some infected dogs may continue to have life long problems even after treatment. Now you know the risks of Lyme disease and how to prevent your dog from catching it, you can help keep your pooch happy, safe and tick free.
This article has been written by Dr Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS.
Margarita graduated from the University of Liverpool, earning a Bachelor in Veterinary Science with distinction. She worked in small animal and equine practice for a few years, before choosing to focus solely on companion animals. She has developed a special interest in internal medicine and ophthalmology.
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