Lyme Disease in Dogs: What Every Dog Parent Should Know · The Wildest

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Let’s Talk About Lyme Disease

We asked a vet for tips on how to prevent the tick-borne Lyme disease

A woman checking her dog for ticks outside in a grassy field.
Daniel Gonzalez / Stocksy

If you spend time outdoors, do yourself and your pup a favour, and search their fur for ticks when you get home. Dogs can pick up the bloodsuckers while out hiking, walking and even in your own garden.

While Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the UK, many pet parents don’t realise that their dog is also at risk for Lyme disease from infected ticks. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause heart complications, joint disease and permanent nervous system damage in dogs. Heres everything you need to know about Lyme disease in dogs and how to prevent it.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted by Ixodes scapularis ticks (commonly referred to as deer ticks or black-legged ticks). These ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, and can be easily missed on dogs in the folds behind the ears, between the toes, under armpits, and around the neck and groin area.

It’s a common misconception that ticks are only a summer problem. Ticks are most active from March to October, but they can be active on mild winter days, too. Most ticks in the UK do not carry the Lyme disease infection – latest research in England suggests that on average, roughly four percent of ticks may be infected with Borrelia, the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease – but this can vary by location and there is a higher infection rate in Europe.

What do you do if you see a tick on your dog?

If you spot a pesky tick on your dog, you should remove it ASAP. “Very carefully, go under the head of the tick with tweezers and just pull out the mouth of the tick, which is embedded in the skin,” says Dr Brian Fallon, who directs the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research at Columbia University Medical Center. To avoid tearing the tick and spreading possible infections into the bite area:

  • use fine-point tweezers

  • pull straight upwards, in a slow and steady motion, to prevent the tick’s mouth from breaking off and remaining embedded in your dog’s skin

  • don’t squeeze the tick’s body, which will transfer possible infection into the skin

If you are unable to remove the tick yourself, consult with your vet.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs?

The good news is that most dogs exposed to Lyme disease are able to fight off the infection themselves and do not develop an illness that requires treatment. In fact, clinical signs of Lyme disease are seen only in approximately 5–10 percent of infected canine cases. It’s hard to diagnose in dogs because the symptoms are often delayed and can appear similar to other diseases.

The first symptoms of Lyme are often generalised pain, limping or changes in eating habits. Lameness can appear suddenly, shift from one leg to another, and even disappear temporarily. Some describe it as ‘walking on eggshells.

Other common clinical signs associated with Lyme disease infection include mild fever, lethargy, mild lymph node enlargement, joint swelling (arthritis in one or multiple joints), lameness (limping or abnormal walking/running behaviour) and discomfort. In rare cases, dogs can develop a serious form of kidney disease that results in increased drinking, urinating, and decreased appetite.

Symptoms of Lyme disease infection in dogs:

  • fever

  • swollen lymph nodes

  • joint swelling

  • limping or lameness

  • fatigue

  • loss of appetite

How is Lyme disease in dogs treated?

Lyme disease in dogs is treated with a long course of antibiotics. While improvements are usually seen within 24–48 hours of starting treatment, antibiotics should be continued for up to a total of 28 days to ensure all the bacteria is killed. Dogs with the rare kidney form of the disease require aggressive treatment, and the prognosis is guarded.

How to prevent Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses

Check your dog’s fur

Always inspect your dog thoroughly after walks through the woods or grassy settings, in particular dense fauna areas. The areas between toes, under the tail and around their mouth, eyes and ears (do not forget the inside of the ears) are especially attractive to ticks.

Remove ticks immediately

The sooner you find and remove a tick, the less likely it is that your dog will contract a secondary illness such as Lyme disease from tick bites.

Use flea and tick preventives

Did you know that most flea and tick medications don’t prevent ticks from jumping on to or even biting your dog? They kill ticks once they bite. In most cases, ticks must be attached for 24–48 hours to transmit Lyme disease, so preventative medications help thwart the disease’s spread. Consult with your vet about the most appropriate product for your dog.

Keep grass as short as possible and stay on paths

Refrain from walking into long and dense grassy patches, if possible. If walking in the woods, try to keep on paths away from high-growth vegetation.

Get your dog vaccinated for Lyme disease

Vaccination could prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease; however, the vaccine may not be appropriate for some dogs. Discuss the vaccine with your vet to see what is best for your pet.

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Kristopher S. Sharpe, DVM, DACVIM

Kristopher S. Sharpe, DVM, DACVIM is Board Certified in Veterinary Internal Medicine, Medical Director, Grand Rapids, BluePearl Pet Hospital.

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