Lyme Disease in Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

Lyme Disease in Dogs: A Pet Parent Guide

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What Causes Lyme Disease In Dogs?

Lyme disease has seen an increase in dogs and humans alike over the past few decades. The clinical signs that it causes can be worrying and the infection can sometimes produce long-term effects.

In today’s article, we’re looking at what causes Lyme disease in dogs, its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, and if it can be prevented in any way.

Is Lyme Disease Fatal?

Lyme is one of the many tick-borne diseases that dogs can get. Ticks are its main vectors, and the way that dogs can become infected with the pathogen, Borrelia burgdorferi is by being bitten by this type of external parasite.

The interesting thing about Lyme disease in dogs is that it can only be transmitted by a specific type of tick — the Ixodes genus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 30,000 to 40,000 Lyme disease cases are reported in dogs every year. That does not mean that more dogs haven’t come into contact with the bacterium — it is estimated that many more catch the disease, but are asymptomatic.

Another detail that we’d like to note is that while Lyme disease can be developed by humans as well. The vector is still the tick. If you are a dog owner, you simply can’t get Borrelia burgdorferi from your pooch, even if they bite you by accident. The infection can only be transmitted through tick bites or direct blood-to-blood contact.

Lyme disease in dogs: a pet parent guide

Symptoms of Lyme Disease

Even though this is just an estimate, it’s said that just 5 to 10% of all dogs that become infected end up showing any symptoms at all. Most animals show the following clinical signs:

  • A rash at the site where the bite occurred (within three days to 4 weeks after the bite)
  • Anorexia
  • Fever
  • Swollen joints
  • Lameness
  • Generalized malaise or pain (or discomfort when performing any move)

As you can expect, it’s quite difficult for pet parents to tell whether their dogs have developed clinical signs of a Borrelia burgdorferi infection or some other health issue.

In fact, most dogs end up at the veterinary hospital because they’re weak and lethargic and might refuse food or might not want to move around as much. Some dogs can start to limp, while others can experience lameness in one of their limbs.

This tick-borne disease can sometimes take up to a year to cause any clinical signs, which makes it extremely challenging to treat. During this time, the infection produces a variety of body changes, so dogs may develop kidney disease or other, more serious consequences such as neurologic manifestations or myocarditis.

If you see your dog showing any signs of Lyme disease, we strongly advise you to get in touch with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Time is of the essence, and the infection can be treated with antibiotics if your dog is diagnosed properly.

How to Treat A Dog with Lyme Disease

Before an animal receives adequate treatment for the infection, a veterinarian has to first diagnose them properly. There are two tests currently available for this disease and any veterinary professional can perform both just to be on the safe side of things.

If the results of the test are positive, your vet will initiate antibiotic treatment. The problem with the test is that dogs that have had the infection for more than four weeks might not have antibodies left in their blood. This makes the condition challenging to diagnose, but the vet can nevertheless use the standard antibiotic treatment applied in most Lyme disease cases.

Another test that can prove its worth is an ultrasound. A urine test can also be useful given that the kidney form of this tick-borne condition can be severe.

The Borrelia burgdorferi infection can usually be treated with antibiotics such as doxycycline, amoxicillin, or azithromycin. The symptoms begin improving in a matter of one to two weeks.

How Severe Is Lyme Disease?

Not all dogs can develop the severe form of this illness. Most will experience problems with their joints, lameness, loss of appetite, and weight loss, as well as a somewhat inexplicable fever.

However, those that do develop the kidney form as a result of not being diagnosed and treated at the right time might suffer long-term consequences. Kidney failure is practically impossible to treat. Once the major functioning unit of this organ, the glomerulus, has become affected, the dog will lose the functionality of the entire kidney.

Since the renal form appears quite late in the progression of the infection if you take your dog to the vet often enough, they might be diagnosed by accident — especially if they’re not showing any symptoms otherwise.

Lyme disease in dogs: a pet parent guide

Can Dogs Fully Recover From Lyme Disease?

With early diagnosis and treatment, a dog can indeed recover from Lyme disease. The prognosis is good if the pet is otherwise healthy and doesn’t suffer from any chronic conditions, as would be the case of a geriatric patient, for example.

Puppies that get Lyme disease might have a reserved prognosis simply because their immune system hasn’t yet developed enough to handle the aggression of the bacterium and its effects.

The vast majority of infected dogs recover their health in a matter of one to two months after being diagnosed and treated. You might have to continue giving your dog hip and joint chews for a while just to make sure that they are comfortable and their joint swelling symptoms are improved.

Lyme disease in dogs: a pet parent guide

Preventing Lyme Disease in Animals

Preventing Lyme disease is, without a doubt, the best way of going about things, but you should know that ticks can transmit a lot of other infections, not just this condition to animals and humans alike.

Some of the bacterial diseases that are particularly dangerous and that can be transmitted by external parasites are anaplasmosis and babesiosis.

There are two main ways you can prevent Lyme disease in dogs. One of them is to get your dog vaccinated against the infection, especially if you live in an area where lots of cases are reported every year.

The other way of preventing Lyme disease in dogs would be for you to practice good external parasite prevention and avoid walking your dog through bushy areas, where ticks are more likely to hang out.

After every walk, you should inspect your canine friend to make sure that they haven’t accidentally collected a companion that could be dangerous for them. While this could be challenging for a long-haired breed, you have to do your best at finding and removing ticks as quickly as possible.

If that seems like too much of a hassle, especially if you’re the owner of a Golden Retriever, for example, we suggest taking your dog to a groomer and giving them a very short haircut from spring to autumn.

Every two to three months, apply a topical solution against ticks or give your dog specific medication that can make it less likely for them to be bitten by such parasites. Talk to your veterinarian about what products they recommend for this purpose.

Final Thoughts

Dogs can get Lyme disease through a tick bite. Practicing good tick control and making sure that your dog is parasite-free after every walk is a good way of making sure they do not become infected.

When you remove the tick from your dog’s body, make sure that you grab the root of the bite as best as possible. Use gloves — direct blood to blood contact is necessary for a person or animal to become infected with the pathogen.

Vaccination can largely prevent this disease in dogs, so we recommend talking with your veterinarian about what options you have in this respect.

Finally, you should know that Lyme disease can sometimes be deadly in both animals and humans, so doing your best to prevent tick exposure is essential.

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Dr. Christina Vulpe, DVM

Member of Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts

Dr. Cristina Vulpe is a board-certified small animal veterinarian. She earned her veterinary degree in 2011 from USAMV in Iasi, Romania, and her PhD in Canine Oncology in 2015 from USAMV in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. She is passionate about anything from animal nutrition & welfare to veterinary parasitology & infectious diseases. As a responsible pet parent herself, she enjoys giving reliable medical advice that pet owners can trust, which is why she joined Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts on our mission to help our readers give their pets the happy & healthy lives they deserve.

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