Lyme Disease: What Dog Lovers Need to Know

You may have seen some of the headlines recently about this summer being forecast as a bad one for ticks. Experts think this bumper crop of ticks won't affect the Southeast any more than normal, but that doesn't mean (you and) your dog can't be bitten by one. Therefore, it's a good idea to know about some of the diseases they can carry. The best known of these is Lyme disease, an infectious, tick-borne disease that you probably know better for its ability to infect humans. However, it can also affect dogs.  

Deer ticks are the primary carriers, and those nasty little parasites look for a warm body to attach to and feed on. While not all deer ticks carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi), some of them do. Additionally, most cases of Lyme disease come from the Northeastern US - only a very few originate in the Southeast, though more and more are found every year.

Even if your dog is bitten by a Lyme-infected tick, that doesn't mean s/he will develop the disease and need treatment. In fact, according to Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, testing positive for Lyme simply means your pet tested positive for the antibodies (was exposed to the disease). Only about 5-10% of dogs with antibodies actually develop the illness, and that’s good news for  both dogs and dog lovers!

Despite these facts making it unlikely that your dog will get Lyme disease, you should be aware of its symptoms just in case your pet is one of that 5-10%. It’s also a good idea to discuss the pros and cons of the Lyme vaccine with your veterinarian.


The Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are different from those we see in human cases. For one thing, dogs don't develop the characteristic red "bulls-eye" rash around the bite seen in many human cases. Things you need to look for in your dog include:

  • Limping -- Lyme disease can cause swollen, painful joints. This is the biggest indicator of the disease since the other symptoms are common in so many other diseases. If your pet starts limping or showing signs of lameness that’s an important signal. In fact, you might see your dog limping on one side for a couple of days and then the pain shifts to another leg. This “shifting lameness” is a distinct sign of Lyme disease and you’ll want to report it to your veterinarian. 
  • Joint Swelling – Swollen joints combined with limping is a good reason to contact your veterinarian and have your dog tested for Lyme disease. 
  • Lack of Appetite -- If your dog’s appetite suddenly decreases -- especially if you have a dog who is normally very excited for food, that’s usually a sign your dog isn’t feeling well. While this symptom alone could have any number of causes, if this symptom shows up in concert with others on this list, Lyme disease may be the culprit. 
  • Sluggish -- If your pet also seems low energy, that’s a useful signal too. Lethargy and low appetite are indicators that something is “off.” 
  • Fever – One way to tell if your dog has a fever is to touch his nose. A healthy nose is cool and damp. A hot and dry nose is an indication of a fever.
  • Kidney failure, nervous system complications and heart abnormalities -- These serious problems are much more rare than the other symptoms. They also tend to occur only in advanced cases.


Typically, dogs won't show signs of Lyme disease for 2-5 MONTHS after being bitten. In other words, you can pick ticks off your dog in August and it can be anytime from Halloween to after New Year's before your dog starts showing signs of the illness. Therefore, by the time your dog starts to act sick, you've probably forgotten all about the ticks a few months before!

Treatment of Lyme Disease

The good news is, Lyme Disease usually can be easily cleared up in your dog with a round of antibiotics. So, if your pet is affected then it’s simple enough to treat.

Depending on your dog's environment and activity patterns, your veterinarian may recommend a yearly test to evaluate your dog for the presence of Lyme disease. For example, dogs that live in or frequent wooded or "tall-grass" areas, may need to be tested more than those dogs that live in and never leave the city. (Though you should keep in mind that ticks can be found anywhere.) As mentioned earlier, some dogs will test positive but not show any symptoms. It’s up to you and your veterinarian how you’d like to proceed if your dog is one of these asymptomatic pooches.


The Best Protection is Prevention

You may think of ticks as being prevalent in the woods, and that’s true. Yet, they can even be in suburban backyards. Ticks prefer long grass and shrubbery so keep your grass cut short and shrubs trimmed back to minimize their hiding places. That means you need to think about how to protect your dog from them. Luckily, there are multiple ways to do that.

First, you can have your dog vaccinated for Lyme disease. For most dogs in the Southeast, this isn't a vaccine included in the yearly recommendations. Remember, Lyme is still rare here. However, if your dog goes on hunting or camping trips or travels with you to areas where Lyme is more common (like the Northeast), you may want to have him/her vaccinated. You can talk to your veterinarian about your concerns and decide whether this is the best course of action. Like many vaccines, Lyme is given annually, though its first dose must be boostered 2-3 weeks after it's first administered.

Second, you should use tick protection on your dog. We recommend Simparica, a monthly flea and tick tablet. There are also some topicals and a few tick collars which will kill ticks.

However, the best prevention is avoidance. Ticks are attached to grasses and shrubs and low hanging tree limbs. When humans and animals brush against these, the ticks will attach to hair and clothing. When these areas are wet, the ticks are much more likely to attach to passersby. It's also important to remember that ticks can thrive year-round, especially in warmer climates like the Southeast. 

Finally, give your dog a thorough check when you come in after walks, hunting trips or other outings that may have brought him/her into contact with ticks, especially if your dog was near grass or shrubs where ticks like to hide. When it comes to your pet, ticks enjoy burrowing at the base of the tail, around the ears, and in between the paws - though they can be found anywhere on the body.


Knowledge is Your Friend

With the prevalence of ticks, it’s a good idea to know what to look for and how at risk your dog is for developing the disease. Ticks transfer many diseases (not just Lyme!) so avoidance and prevention are the best option.  If you suspect your dog has Lyme disease, book an appointment with us today


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