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About Lyme Disease In Dogs

Lyme Disease in dogs can cause serious health problems if it's not diagnosed and treated early.

Also known as Borreliosis, this disease is carried and transmitted by ticks (most often the tiny Deer Tick), and is most often found in the north-eastern United States.

Luckily there is a simple way to protect your pet from being infected, and there is also a vaccine available for dogs who are at high risk of contracting the infection.

Here's what you need to know about Lyme Disease......

The Causes Of Canine Lyme Disease

Although primarily transmitted by the teeny-weeny Deer Tick (also known as the black-legged tick and whose primary host are deer) it's not picky, and if your dog happens to wander through long grass or wooded areas, then this little critter will happily 'jump aboard'!

This is NOT good news for your pup. However, the fact that you are aware of this possibility is the key to keeping your dog healthy.

Lyme Disease isn't 'contagious' and you can't catch it from your dog, however if an infected Deer Tick bites you then you can be infected in the same way as your dog.

Humans tend to suffer from flu-like symptoms, including achy joints and swollen lymph nodes, and a characteristic 'bullseye' rash around the area of the original tick bite.

Although this disease can occur in almost any part of the US, it's more prevalent in certain areas particularly the north-eastern states such as New York State, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia.

It's also often found in the Great Lakes area, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

This region is home to the Eastern Blacklegged Tick, aka Ioxdes Scapularis. 

The western states can also be affected, particularly California, and in this area it's the Western Blacklegged Tick, aka Ioxdes Pacificus, that's to blame.

In order for the ticks on dogs to transmit the bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi), they need to be attached to the dog for at least 18 - 36 hours (there is no specific time frame that's agreed on by all experts/research at this point).

After this period of time the bacteria could be transferred to the dogs' bloodstream through the ticks saliva.

However, not all dogs who are bitten by infected ticks will get sick, and not all deer ticks are carrying Lyme Disease. Studies have shown that a large percentage of dogs already have some immunity, but there's no way for you to tell by looking whether or not your dog is at risk.

It's best to follow preventative measures, and also treat any tick found on your dog as a potential threat (there are also other tick-borne diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis and others to be concerned about).

Deer ticks are actually quite small, usually between 2 to 3.5 mm, and a fully grown adult is no bigger than a sesame seed. When it is sucking blood however, it grows considerably in size and is easier to see.

Adult Blacklegged Tick, aka 'Deer Tick'Adult Blacklegged tick (aka 'Deer' tick) aka Ixodes Scapularis.

Photo by Scott Bauer, Public Domain,
via Wikimedia Commons

Adult Blacklegged Tick, aka 'Deer Tick' engorged with bloodAdult Blacklegged tick adult, full of blood after a feeding.

Photo by Thomas Hedden (own work),
Public Domain, 
via Wikimedia Commons

The images above show and adult deer tick before and after it has been gorging on a host animal's blood.

The first photo is obviously the 'before' pic, and the second one is the 'after' shot.

Nasty isn't it!

Symptoms Of Lyme Disease In Dogs

The symptoms of canine lyme disease usually appear somewhere between 2 and 5 months after the dog has been bitten by an infected tick. So at first the dog won't have any symptoms at all.

But occasionally they can appear sooner (in as little as a few weeks) or sometimes even later, possibly up to a year or longer after exposure.

It's also important to realize that the symptoms of lyme disease in dogs are usually NOT the same as the symptoms you might see in a person who has Lyme disease.

You are very unlikely to see that classic 'bullseye rash' for example, but occasionally you might.

The most common symptoms of this Lyme Disease in dogs are :

  • Limping or lameness - most often seen in one of the front legs, but can affect any leg/s, and can be intermittent. General stiffness or arthritis-like symptoms.

  • Swollen or tender joints - a result of inflammation, usually worse in the leg that is most severely affected but becoming generalized in time

  • Swollen lymph nodes - a reaction to the bacteria in the dogs system

  • Fever - a fever, usually somewhere between 103 and 105

  • Lethargy - this can be a result of the fever and a general feeling of being unwell, but a reluctance to walk, or even move, can also be a direct result of the painful joints seen in canine Lyme Disease

  • Loss of appetite - again due to the fact that your pet isn't feeling well. Sustained reluctance to eat can cause significant weight loss.

Rare, but serious, symptoms which might appear include:

  • Heart  irregularities
  • Kidney problems
  • Neurological/nervous system issues

The most important symptoms to be aware of are limping or lameness, swollen joints and/or lymph nodes, and fever. Lethargy and loss of appetite are more general signs of illness, and could more easily be symptoms of many other illnesses or diseases.

It's also important to know that the 'bulls-eye' rash that is often seen as a symptom of Lyme Disease in humans, is much less commonly seen in dogs.

If the tick bite was on a relatively hair-free area of your dog (ie his belly, inner hind leg etc.), then you may see a red, bullseye type rash around the bite itself. However, most dogs don't develop this symptom, and even if they do the chances are fairly good that it will be hidden by his fur.

If left untreated, Lyme Disease in dogs can cause some very serious health issues. These include :

  • Kidney damage or kidney failure

  • Heart problems

  • Neurological problems including seizures

  • Chronic joint inflammation/arthritis

  • Immune system problems

So, it's clear how important it is to take your dog to the vet if you have the slightest suspicion that your dog could be at risk.

Treating Canine Lyme Disease

Treatments for this disease are usually very effective, if the illness is recognized early enough.

If your pup or dog is showing any of the signs/symptoms above, get him veterinary attention immediately as they can progress very quickly, and your dog could go from having a slight limp, to being almost immobile within a couple of days.

Anytime your dog is in a wooded area, or in long grass, he is exposed to ticks. If you live in the countryside, he could even pick them up in his own yard. It's vital to check your dog daily and if you find a tick (or several ticks), remove them right away.

There's about a 18 - 36 hour 'window', before an infected tick can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease (experts still disagree on the exact  time frame), so being vigilant about checking for, and removing, ticks is the best way to prevent him from getting sick.

The more common American Dog Tick isn't a carrier, but most of us can't really tell the difference between tick species..... and I know that I'm not too keen to get up really close to these nasty little creatures if I can help it!

Your veterinarian can make a definitive diagnosis with a simple blood test, and if your dog tests positive and is showing symptoms, he'll be treated with antibiotics which are usually very effective.

The most commonly used antibiotics used for treating Canine Lyme Disease are doxycycline and amoxicillin. The earlier the antibiotics are started, the better the chance that your dog will make a full recovery.

A 3 week course of these antibiotics is the minimum most veterinarians recommend, and it may be necessary for your dog to take them for a month, or occasionally even longer. If the antibiotics are stopped too early, symptoms may come back (along with the risk of the long-term damage listed above).

Preventing Canine Lyme Disease

Rule #1 - Use an effective tick preventative, regularly!

Rule #2 - If you see a tick on your dog, remove it right away!

Luckily, given the potential severity of the effects of canine Lyme Disease, preventing this illness is fairly simple.

Using an effective tick preventative on a regular basis will protect your dog fairly effectively, by ensuring that any ticks on him will die within the 18 hour 'window' before infection sets in.

Over the counter products can't be relied on, and it's important to choose a product that contains Permethrin or Amitraz. 

The most popular brands of topical treatments such as Frontline Plus or Advantix II are good choices.

Revolution is not an effective treatment against Lyme Disease in dogs as it only kills the American Dog Tick, NOT the Deer Ticks who carry the disease. Advantage is also ineffective as protection because it only kills fleas!

Some collars such as the Preventic Tick Collar For Dogs can also be used, but as these may not be as effective as the topical treatments it's a good idea to use them as extra protection if ticks are really bad in your area, or if your dog spends a lot of time out hunting/walking in long grass or wooded areas.

A Preventic collar can be used at the same time as the topical treatments, but is effective for up to 3 months.

If you live in an area where Lyme Disease is prevalent, you may want to consider having your pup vaccinated against it.

Although not 100% effective (no vaccine is!), it's still the best way to protect a high-risk dog.

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