What to Know About Lyme Disease in Dogs

sick husky at the vet

Just as with humans, there are health issues that can affect our dogs. The difference is that when your dog isn’t feeling well, they can’t describe to you what’s happening to them in a language you understand. So, you have to rely on behavioral changes and other indications that something is going on and then work with your vet to figure out the cause. Most of the time, knowing what to look for ahead of time is a big help. Lyme Disease is one of the potential dangers out in the world that can affect your dog. Here’s what you need to know about Lyme Disease in dogs:

What is Lyme Disease in Dogs?

Lyme Disease in dogs is a chronic illness and is one of the most common tick-transmitted diseases in the world. However, only around 5-10% of infected dogs will present with clinical symptoms of Lyme Disease.

When an infection does lead to Lyme Disease, it is generally characterized by inflammation of the joints, which can cause recurrent lameness, and an overall feeling of fatigue, sickness, and malaise.

What Causes Lyme Disease in Dogs?

Lyme Disease is caused by a bacteria called borrelia burgdorferi. It is most commonly found in hard-shelled deer ticks that have been infected by the bacteria.

Ticks carrying the borrelia bacteria can bite a dog, human, or other animals, stay attached, slowly feed, and transmit the bacteria to them.

A bite from an infected tick does not always result in symptomatic Lyme Disease, but it can. The first outbreak was in Lyme, Connecticut, which is where the disease got its name.

How Long Does it Take for a Dog to Get Lyme Disease?

In order for the bacteria to transfer from the infected tick to the host, the tick needs to be attached for at least 48 hours. If the tick is killed or removed in less than 24 hours, the bacteria usually is not transmitted to the host.

With Lyme Disease, signs of clinical illness are usually expected 2-5 months after the initial infection. But some dogs can begin to show symptoms as soon as 3-4 hours after it is contracted. Other dogs may be infected for months before symptoms occur, sometimes even longer than the usual 2-5 month range. And, because only 5-10% of infected dogs show symptoms of Lyme Disease, symptoms may never show up for some dogs.

Can I Get Lyme Disease From My Dog?

No, you cannot get Lyme Disease from your dog. It is not a zoonotic disease, which means it cannot be directly transferred from your dog to you.

However, it is important to note that cross-infection can occur if a tick infected with the bacteria that can lead to Lyme Disease crawls off of your dog onto you and bites you.

In this case, you can become infected and potentially contract Lyme Disease if the tick remains attached for 36-48 hours. You can also become infected when a tick bites you after an outdoor adventure and stays attached long enough to transfer the bacteria.

How Serious is Lyme Disease in Dogs?

Lyme Disease is typically transmitted by a tick who bit into your dog, really dug in, and sucked blood over time. That extended connection allows the disease to be transferred into your dog’s bloodstream where it goes to work.

When an infection leads to Lyme Disease in dogs, it can be very serious. Dogs with Lyme Disease tend to have recurrent lameness caused by chronic joint inflammation, which makes it difficult for them to walk and move around. This can seriously reduce your dog’s ability to move and their overall quality of life. But, dogs do generally respond well to treatment.

However, Lyme Disease in dogs can lead to more serious health concerns like kidney damage or failure, heart disease, or a disease of the nervous system. Although damage to the heart or the nervous system is rare, it is a potential concern and can be a serious side effect of Lyme Disease.

What are Signs of Lyme Disease in a Dog?

The biggest and most common sign of Lyme Disease in dogs is the recurrent lameness due to chronic inflammation of the joints. The inflammation also tends to move and travel around the body and causes lameness in various areas. Pain, fever, and lameness tend to be the first clinical signs and they can also coincide with other symptoms and signs.

Inflamed joints could cause your dog to walk stiffly with an arched back or become sensitive to touch. Difficulty breathing, fever, swollen lymph nodes, lack of appetite, and lethargy are other symptoms of Lyme Disease. These are also symptoms you should never ignore in your dog as they tend to be signs that something is wrong.

Lyme Disease can also lead to kidney problems, which can express itself as vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and fluid buildup. Fluid buildup usually occurs in their abdomen and other tissues such as under the legs and skin. Although they are rare, other symptoms and comorbidities can include heart abnormalities and nervous system complications.

How to Treat Lyme Disease in Dogs

Lyme Disease treatment in dogs varies depending on their symptoms and the severity of them. But, when treatment is needed, dogs usually respond well to it.

Sometimes, there isn’t treatment. A dog can test positive for Lyme Disease and not show clinical signs. In this case, the best decision may be not to treat it as there aren’t any active symptoms to treat.

For a dog with clinical signs of Lyme Disease, there may be a series of antibiotics used for treatment. Doxycycline is the most commonly used antibiotic for treating Lyme Disease in dogs. Although the treatment length is usually about 4 weeks and sometimes longer, many dogs start feeling better within just a few days of taking Doxycycline.

If your dog is uncomfortable or experiencing other symptoms, the vet may also recommend or prescribe anti-inflammatory medications and other treatments.

Many dogs go into remission after treatment. But, treatment with antibiotics does not always completely eliminate the infection. So, symptoms may resolve, but may return at a later date. Plus, kidney disease in the future will be a concern.

Regular vet visits and treatment with antibiotics as needed can help reduce the likelihood of ongoing consequences.

How to Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs

Because this disease is so debilitating, prevention is so important and really is the best “treatment”. Prevention is a year-round effort, so it’s important to spend some extra time to prepare your dog for tick season and keep those habits year-round.

Use Preventive Treatments and Take Preventive Measures

Using preventive treatments on your dog and around your home and yard can help control and kill ticks while protecting both you and your dog. Flea and tick collars in conjunction with other preventive treatments can be very effective.

Thoroughly Check Yourself and Your Dog

On top of treatments, you can also supplement your prevention efforts with daily checks. Every time you and your dog come in from being outside, check yourself and them carefully for ticks.

Make sure you check hidden areas too like their paws, between their toes, in and around their ears, around their neck, on their stomach, and more. It’s also important to check the folds in your dog’s skin and throughout their undercoat if they have a double coat.

It may also be a good idea to get them clipped and groomed more frequently in the summer to make it easier to comb through their coat and spot ticks before they can latch on.

Keep Preventive Efforts Going Throughout Winter

It’s important to do this even in the winter. Ticks don’t tend to die off in the winter. Instead, they hunker down and wait for a warm enough day where the temperature gets around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, even for just a few hours. Ticks are able to hide in the ground or warm brush throughout your yard even in the snow.

Get Tested Annually

It’s also a good idea to get your pup tested for Lyme Disease every year. This will help keep your dog safe. And, if they do end up contracting the disease, you will be able to act quickly and accordingly.

Lyme Disease can be serious for canines and humans alike. With this information on-hand and a prevention plan in progress, you can protect you and your dog from ticks and prevent Lyme Disease.