Lyme Disease in Dogs: Symptoms, Testing, Treatment & Prevention
If thinking about a tick attached to you or your dog gives you the heebie-jeebies, you're not alone. Our natural aversion to arachnids, joint-legged insects, is one of our natural defenses against the many diseases they transmit, both to us and the pets we share our lives with.
Let's take a look at what Lyme disease in dogs is, signs of Lyme disease in dogs and what to do if your dog is diagnosed with this disease.
What Is Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease affects dogs and people across the world. Known by many in the medical community as Borreliosis, Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Most commonly, dogs become infected when a tick that is carrying this bacteria bites them. Though we don't entirely know why, cats seem to be much more resistant to Lyme disease infection.
I Found a Tick on My Dog, What Do I Do?
If the tick is still attached, and your veterinarian is open and able to squeeze you in, prioritize this appointment. If you cannot get in to your vet right away, removing the tick yourself is your next best option. Use fine-tipped tweezers to remove it as close to the dog's skin as possible. It's most important to remove the tick at the head, as this is where they can transmit the disease from. It takes at least 24 hours for an infected tick to transmit the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease, which makes removing the tick promptly so important.
If possible, take a clearly focused picture of the tick before removal to show your vet and then save the tick in a zip-lock bag. If the species of tick can be identified, then your vet will know what diseases the tick can potentially transmit.
Is Lyme Disease Likely?
The chances that your dog will contract Lyme disease after one tick bite is impossible to say. Most tick species don't carry the causative bacteria, but how long the tick is attached is also a factor in the disease transmission.
Dogs can serve as a meal for many different species of ticks, but according to National Geographic, it is black-legged deer ticks that transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. If you're unsure if your home area is native to the black-legged deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), consult this map provided by the CDC.
Should I Have My Dog Tested?
Antibodies can take weeks to develop. Because of this, tests for Lyme disease that are performed before the antibodies have evolved may show up as negative — even if your dog is infected. If your dog is infected and is retested four to six weeks later, they should have a positive test. If you do decide to have your dog tested, you should also keep in mind that just because they test positive for antibodies does not automatically mean they have the disease. This simply means that at some point in their life they were exposed and their body mounted a response. In many cases, this makes it difficult to determine the importance of positive test results because unfortunately, there aren't reliable tests that can identify the presence of the infecting bacteria in your dogs body.Whether or not they should be cause for concern depends on many factors, including whether or not your vet feels your dog is showing symptoms that may be consistent with lyme disease. Ultimately, you should rely on your veterinarian to decide whether or not testing for lyme disease is appropriate and should your dog test positive, what should be done with that information.
If you're concerned about how long the testing process takes and how it may affect you or your family, keep in mind that humans cannot contract Lyme disease from an infected dog. The Ixodes tick is the primary means of transmission in people, as well as dogs.
Signs of Lyme Disease in Dogs
Often called, "The Great Imitator," signs of Lyme disease in dogs vary widely. Many dogs are asymptomatic when infected and never end up showing signs, others become extremely lethargic and lose their appetite. Intermittent lameness is also a possibility. Humans often develop a characteristic bull's-eye rash after the tick bite, but this does not occur with dogs.
If your dog exhibits any of these symptoms, you should talk with your veterinarian about whether testing for Lyme disease is reasonable. Lyme disease, when untreated, can compromise kidney health and function.
If your dog is diagnosed with Lyme disease, treatment is available. An extended course of the antibiotics often does the trick. Unfortunately, there are no home remedies for Lyme disease. The disease can be difficult to treat, and even after a prolonged antibiotic course, symptoms can recur. Knowing when the dog has cleared the infection can be a challenge with available diagnostics. This is why it is so important to follow your veterinarian's instructions explicitly.
Preventing Lyme Disease
Since treatment is not always effective, the best course of action is protecting your dog from Lyme disease in the first place. Depending on where you live, your veterinarian may recommend a vaccine against Lyme disease.
Regardless of your vaccination choice, it is important to check your pup daily for ticks during tick season. Seasons may vary depending on your area. Any tick found should be removed that day. Strict tick control, whether it is a topical product or an oral one, is a powerful tool in the prevention of exposure to Lyme disease and other common parasites in dogs.
Dr. Laci Schaible
Dr. Laci Schaible is a veterinarian, telemedicine expert, and published author. She works as the Head of Veterinary Medicine at rhapsody.vet.