Lyme disease is one of the most commonly contracted tick-borne diseases in the world. Here in the United States, the incidence of reported cases of Lyme disease has more than doubled in the past 25 years. Dogs are even more susceptible to Lyme disease than humans because they walk closer the ground and lack the ability to “check” themselves for ticks.
Lyme Disease in Dogs: What to Know
Lyme disease – sometimes incorrectly referred to as “Lymes disease” – is an infectious disease caused by the spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi which usually enters a dog’s bloodstream through a tick bite. The unfortunate answer to, “Can dogs get Lyme disease?” is yes, and they do.
Once inside a dog’s body, the disease can cause issues in specific locations, such as the joints or organs, or overall illness symptoms. Black-legged ticks are the most common domestic carrier of Lyme disease and are most often found in wooden natural areas. Dogs can be bitten by ticks in the woods, in tall grass, on a walk, or even while in their own yards. Ticks do not discriminate.
The incidence of Lyme disease in dogs is highest in the Northeastern U.S. where tick populations thrive, but is found nationally. Lyme disease is found on both coasts and also in the Upper Midwest..it has been reported in all 50 states. Contrary to popular belief, Lyme disease risk isn’t seasonal. Although ticks come out in full-force in spring, they can be active year round, particularly in temperate climates. Both adult and nymph ticks can spread Lyme disease.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs
Surprisingly, only about 5-10% of dogs who are infected with Lyme disease will ever actually exhibit symptoms. You may only think to have your dog checked for Lyme disease after finding a tick you didn’t know was attached to him. If you’re unsure, always talk to your vet.
Common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs include:
- Lameness caused by inflammation of the joints; pain, swelling, or redness can come and go which often makes it hard to spot (known as “shifting-leg lameness”)
- Unexplained fever
- Lack of appetite or changes in thirst/urination
- Stiffness when walking and/or an unnaturally arched back
- Depression symptoms or other unusual changes in behavior
- Swelling of the lymph nodes close to where the tick bite occurred
- Difficulty breathing or raspy, strained breaths
- Long-term kidney issues that lead to vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, increased urination, and a host of serious side effects
Testing Dogs for Lyme Disease
If you’ve noticed any of the common signs of Lyme disease or if you found a tick hidden on your dog, contact your vet for further testing. There are two primary types of Lyme disease tests for dogs: Antibody tests and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests. Both are blood tests.
Antibody tests look for specific antibodies your dog’s body is creating to “fight” the unknown bacteria. If your dog has been very recently infected or has been suffering from an infection for a long time, these antibodies may not be present. PCR tests actually search your dog’s DNA for the presence of the bacterium itself. Since Lyme disease can live somewhat locally inside the body, it is possible but not common for both these testing methods to return a false-negative.
Lyme Disease Treatment for Dogs
Unless your dog’s condition is unstable (such as in the case of extreme kidney damage), he can be treated on an outpatient basis. The antibiotic Doxycycline is the most commonly prescribed for treatment, although others are sometimes used. The usual course of treatment is around four weeks, but your vet may keep your dog on antibiotics longer if the infection is severe. You might also want to ask about a prescription for an anti-inflammatory if your dog seems uncomfortable.
Although many dogs’ Lyme disease symptoms are eradicated completely with a single course of antibiotics, other dogs can see multiple recurrences. It’s entirely possible for a dog who seemed “cured” of Lyme disease to suddenly suffer kidney complications years down the road…that’s why it’s important to work out a comprehensive, long-term treatment and retesting plan with your vet.
How Long Can a Dog Live with Lyme Disease?
In decades past, a Lyme disease diagnosis for a dog was akin to a death sentence. This is not the case today. Previously, there were no reliable, accurate testing methods for Lyme disease which meant most dogs weren’t diagnosed until their symptoms had spiraled out of control. When Lyme disease is caught early, life-altering complications such as kidney failure, nervous system damage, and heart issues can be prevented altogether.
A dog with Lyme disease can live a long and happy life. What’s most important is vigilance in the beginning; catching the disease early drastically improves the outcome of treatment. After treatment, relapses are quite common. It’s critical for you to have your dog regularly evaluated (and possibly retested) by a vet to be sure symptoms aren’t recurring.
If your dog continues to be symptomatic, he has what’s called Chronic Lyme disease. Symptoms can be managed in the same way other chronic diseases’ symptoms can be, but complete eradication of the disease at this point is highly unlikely.
Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs
Once a tick attaches to your dog it can start transmitting Lyme disease at 24-36 hours in. That’s why it’s so important to check your dog for ticks as soon as possible after returning indoors; consistency is key. Remember that ticks can’t fly – they crawl or jump – so your dog’s legs and underbelly are particularly vulnerable. If you find a tick, you don’t necessarily need to go to the vet. Remove the tick immediately and monitor your dog for symptoms of illness in the coming weeks.
It’s important to note that certain kinds of dogs are more susceptible to contracting Lyme disease than others. Puppies and older dogs, for example, have immune systems that aren’t as equipped to fight off invading bacterium. Several breeds including Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Shetland Sheepdogs are more at-risk of Lyme disease than others.
There is also a highly effective Lyme disease vaccine available for dogs. It’s administered initially in two doses spaced 3-6 weeks apart and then boosted once every 6-12 months as-needed for the life of your dog. If your dog spends any significant time outdoors or if you live in an area where Lyme is present, talk to your vet about the vaccine.
At the end of the day, the absolute best thing you can do to help your dog avoid Lyme disease is to keep his flea and tick medication current. Tick medication in either pill or liquid form is your dog’s first and most effective line of defense against Lyme.