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Lyme disease in dogs

Lyme disease in dogs is an issue that all pet owners need to worry about - especially during summer months. When the weather is warmer and your dog spends more time outside, their chances of being bitten by a tick and contracting Lyme disease increase. It’s incredibly common, but symptoms will only show up in roughly ten percent of affected dogs. Even so, the condition is everywhere and can be found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. 

However, ticks carrying Lyme disease can survive in freezing temperatures too! While rare, Lyme disease has been known to cause fatalities, and we will look at why that is a little further down.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by an organism called Borrelia burgdorferi which can be transmitted to a dog by a tick bite. The condition is primarily spread during tick season which is May through August, however ticks are active throughout the year so long as temperatures are above freezing. It is important to note that Lyme disease also affects humans, however it cannot be transferred directly from a dog to a human. Although a dog could transport unattached ticks, which later attach to humans.

In 2013, 95% of human Lyme disease diagnoses were made in 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. These correspond with the distribution of the Ixodes tick vectors. Smaller pockets of infection occurred in central-northern coastal California, near Seattle and along the Florida coast.

How does your dog get Lyme disease?

Also known as Lyme borreliosis, this disease is transported and delivered by hard-shelled ticks which can be found all over the country. Although, it is more common in some parts of the country then others.

A tick can latch onto your dog anywhere, but they will typically be found on the underbelly of your animal. Once daily you should do a thorough check of your dog to make sure no ticks caught a ride.Transmission of the organism from the tick requires a minimum of 48 hours.

What do the ticks look like?

One of the problems with ticks is that they are difficult to see. Tick nymphs are tiny, just 2mm in length. However, as they feed, their bodies swell, and they become far more noticeable. This means that you will be able to find them on your dog's skin if you look carefully. The issue is removing the tick.

You can remove a tick with a special device that you can get from your vet. Removing it without a tool like this may cause you to only get the body or could force partially digested blood back into your dog which could increase their risk of infection. Be careful and if in doubt, consult your vet.

What are the signs that your dog has Lyme disease

The most common (and sometimes only) sign of Lyme disease is sudden lameness which can often appear in one leg and shift to another. Other indications include:

  • Swollen or painful joints

  • General weakness

  • Fever

  • Lethargy

  • Loss of appetite

  • Kidney problems

In rare cases, serious issues such as kidney failure can occur. It is at this point that Lyme disease can become life-threatening for your dog. That’s why you need to make sure that you are getting them checked out as soon as you notice these symptoms.

Neurological and heart issues may also be present in some dogs, but are very rare.

How are dogs tested for Lyme disease?

A common test that veterinarians use checks your dog for antibodies to this disease. Antibodies are created by the body to fight the organism, and a positive result will show the dog was exposed. If positive, additional testing may be recommending.

Treating Lyme disease in your dog

Your vet will be able to provide several treatments for your dog if they have Lyme disease. They may provide antibiotics that can be taken for several weeks. A persistent infection with a very low bacterial burden may remain, but treatment does significantly improve symptoms. In this situation, long-term monitoring may be recommended by your vet.

Can my dog spread Lyme disease?

It’s not possible to get Lyme disease directly from your dog. However, the tick that infected it may have been brought into your home. As well as this, you might have trudged through the long grass or environment where your dog picked up the tick. As such, if your dog is diagnosed with Lyme disease, it might be a good idea to get yourself checked out as well.

Preventing your dog contracting Lyme disease

The easiest way to prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease is to check them regularly for ticks after a walk and keep them out of areas where ticks are likely to be. Long grass and marshland are common places where you will find ticks, so if possible they should be avoided on your walks.

If you live in a high risk area your veterinarian may recommend a vaccine.  You could consider having a professional treat your yard for ticks.

There are also a wide range of products to prevent tick attachment including spot-on, sprays, collars or pills/chewables. The effectiveness of these treatments do vary. Consult your vet about the best one for your dog.