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Lyme Disease in Dogs

Dog in the woods
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Severity: i Medium - High
Life stage: All
  • Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia bacteria.
  • The bacteria are transmitted to dogs by the Ixodes tick—also known as the black-legged tick or deer tick.
  • Some dogs with Lyme disease never show symptoms.
  • When symptoms are noticeable, they include joint pain, lameness, fever, and more.
  • Early detection and treatment is key. Untreated or severe forms of Lyme can cause serious kidney problems.

Most people have heard about the dangers of Lyme disease, but few realize that this condition also affects dogs. 

Unlike people, many dogs who are exposed to Lyme disease never develop any symptoms. Most of the time, symptoms are mild and are easily treated. However, some dogs with Lyme disease can become very sick. 

Getting dogs treatment for Lyme disease early is the best course of action. Let’s take a closer at how dogs get Lyme, what the symptoms are, and how pet parents can work with their veterinarians to treat and prevent this parasitic disease. 

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia bacteria. This bacteria is transmitted by ticks to dogs (or people), but it is not contagious between species—meaning people cannot get Lyme disease from dogs and dogs cannot get Lyme disease from people. Most Lyme disease infections are transmitted by the Ixodes tick—also known as the black-legged tick or deer tick. 

In the United States, Lyme disease is spreading. It is most common in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, and rapidly spreading across the Northern United States and Appalachia. Currently, there are no states that are free of Lyme disease, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC).

Infection is most likely to occur in the spring and summer but infections happen year-round. Over the winter, ticks survive by biting and attaching to mammals such as mice, squirrels, and deer. When a tick drops off one of these animals, it can be easily picked up by your dog. 

Most ticks quest, which means they climb up long stalks of grass and plants and wait for an unsuspecting animal to walk by. They then attach to the animal and bite for their meal.

Since the disease is transmitted by ticks, risk is highest in and near forested areas. 

Causes of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Tick on a dog

Dogs get Lyme disease from the bite of an infected Ixodes tick, just like people do. However, transmission of the disease is not instantaneous when the tick bites. It takes 24-48 hours for the tick to transmit the disease to your dog. 

Once the Borrelia bacteria enters a dog’s body, it changes the molecules on its surface in order to hide from the immune system. This is why many dogs do not get immediately sick, but may develop symptoms long after the tick bite. 

Ticks can transmit disease even at an early life stage. Young ticks, known as nymphs (often referred to as seed ticks), look like tiny black dots. Their legs are so small that you may not see them at first. Adult ticks have a black front half of the body and a wider brown back. You may not be able to see the tick’s head if it has already latched onto your dog. 

There is some suggestion that Retriever-type dogs may be slightly more susceptible to a severe form of Lyme disease. Studies from Europe found that Bernese Mountain Dogs may also be at increased risk for this severe form. (2)

Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Dog walking through high grass

Many dogs who are exposed to Lyme disease never develop any symptoms. But for dogs that show signs, symptoms may develop days to weeks after tick exposure and can range from very mild to severe. 

Joint pain is often the first sign of Lyme disease in dogs and this can include one or more joints. Sometimes, pain in multiple joints just looks like stiffness or slowness to get up and down. 

Most dogs who develop symptoms of Lyme disease will show one or more of the following signs:

  • Joint swelling and pain
  • Lameness 
  • Fever
  • Lethargy (decreased energy)
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Rarely, dogs develop kidney disease associated with Lyme infection. Symptoms of this form of Lyme disease, called Lyme nephritis, may range from mild to severe. 

The symptoms, which are similar to those of acute or chronic kidney disease, include:

  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite (inappetance or anorexia)
  • Edema (fluid under the skin)
  • Fluid in the chest or abdomen

Diagnosing Your Dog With Lyme Disease

Veterinarian removing a tick from a dog

Diagnosis of Lyme disease starts with a physical examination. There are many causes of illness that look similar to Lyme disease and a full physical examination can help your veterinarian narrow down the possibilities. 

Next, your veterinarian will recommend bloodwork and a urine test. There are several changes that are common in acute and chronic Lyme disease that your veterinarian will look for including signs of inflammation and kidney damage. Since joint pain is a common symptom of Lyme disease, your veterinarian may recommend X-rays to look for other causes of joint pain.

Your veterinarian will perform a specific blood test for Lyme disease antibodies. Antibodies are the part of the immune system that recognizes specific causes of disease, such as the Borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Antibody tests cannot distinguish between an active infection and simple exposure. This means that though the test is useful to rule out Lyme disease, it cannot confirm that your dog’s symptoms are the result of a Lyme disease infection.

The cost to diagnose Lyme disease in dogs can be as little as $100 to more than $500, depending on which tests are required by your veterinarian. 

Treatment for Dog Lyme Disease 

Most veterinarians will recommend oral antibiotics given for four weeks after tick exposure for symptomatic dogs. Depending on your dog’s symptoms, your veterinarian may also recommend pain medications or steroids. 

With appropriate treatment, most dogs will fully recover by the end of one month and Lyme disease won’t affect their overall health or life expectancy. 

However, long-term infection with Borrelia can cause damage to a dog’s kidneys, called Lyme nephritis. This is why early detection and treatment for Lyme disease is key. 

Kidney damage is irreversible and is progressive, though there are several types of medications and other treatments that can improve your dog’s health. These include changing to a prescription dog food and adding one or more oral medications to slow damage to the kidneys. Some dogs may also require steroids or other types of immunosuppressive medications. Dogs with Lyme nephritis require frequent veterinary visits in order to manage these medications and make changes as necessary. 

Early intervention with antibiotics will reduce the likelihood that your dog develops the serious form of Lyme disease.            

General Cost to Treat Lyme Disease in Dogs

The cost to treat Lyme disease in dogs depends on the size of your dog and your geographic location. However, the average range for early treatment with antibiotics and medication is $20-$100. 

However, the bacteria is not fully removed from the body by this treatment and therefore it is possible for dogs to develop long-term effects of Borrelia infection, which may be more costly to treat down the road. 

The cost of treating kidney problems due to Lyme nephritis can easily escalate tol thousands of dollars over several years. As the disease progresses, dogs may experience kidney failure, which can deteriorate their quality of life. 

How to Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs

Pet parent giving tick prevention to dog

It is easy to prevent Lyme disease in dogs with monthly tick prevention. Most tick prevention kills ticks when they bite, preventing transmission of the disease. Since ticks can bite year-round, tick preventatives need to be given year-round. 

Tick Prevention Methods

The most effective tick prevention products require a prescription from your veterinarian and come in chewable and topical formulations. Many of the off-brand and inexpensive over-the-counter options that claim to kill ticks are not effective enough to keep your pet safe. Don’t risk your pet’s health to save a few dollars. These products may also be slower to kill ticks, meaning that your dog can bring ticks into the house where you or your family can also be infected.

Permethrin-embedded collars repel ticks, preventing ticks from biting your dog and are available without a prescription. These collars should only be purchased directly from trusted sources as there are many fake versions offered at discount prices. Citronella collars do not protect your dog from ticks. 

Always check yourself and your dog for ticks after going to forested areas, walking near tall grass, or spending time in overgrowth. Ticks like to attach between a dog’s toes, in the armpits and hip pockets, and in ears. However, ticks can be found anywhere on a dog’s body, including but not limited to parts of the body that come in contact with plants. 

If you do see a tick on your dog, use tweezers or a tick removal tool to gently pull it off. It is important to remove the head with the rest of the body. If you feel uncomfortable performing this procedure at home, contact your veterinarian immediately. 

Lyme Disease Vaccine

A vaccine is available against Lyme disease. However, it is not recommended for every dog. This is because risk of exposure varies by geographic location and lifestyle and because the vaccine is not fully effective.

It is estimated that the Lyme vaccine prevents 60-83 percent of infections (3). The best protection requires re-vaccinating against Lyme disease every 6 to 12 months. The vaccine should not be given to dogs who test positive for Lyme disease. 

Many veterinarians in lower-risk locations consider year-round tick prevention to be safer and more effective than the Lyme vaccine and therefore may not recommend it for your dog. If you are interested in vaccinating your dog against Lyme disease, discuss the vaccine with your veterinarian.

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