Lyme disease continues to be, with the CDC stating that 2017 was one of the worst summers on record for Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. And people aren’t the only ones at risk – dogs commonly suffer from Lyme disease as well. With more and more information coming out about the long-term health effects of Lyme disease, in both humans and animals, pet owners need to know how to protect their whole family from the disease.
Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium and is carried and spread by ticks (most often the blacklegged tick, commonly known as the deer tick or bear tick). Dogs pick up ticks when they walk through grassy, wooded, or sandy areas, where ticks can crawl onto passing animals or people from the surrounding vegetation. There is no official “tick season” – adult ticks are not killed by frost and can be active all year round in most parts of the United States.
Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs include fever, loss of appetite, lethargy and fatigue, lameness (shifting, intermittent, or recurring), swollen joints, and generalized stiffness, discomfort, or pain. Lyme disease can progress and lead to kidney failure, as well as serious cardiac and neurological effects.
If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, find a tick on your dog, or suspect that your dog may have been exposed to Lyme disease, take him to the vet immediately. Your vet will diagnose Lyme disease through an evaluation of physical symptoms combined with a blood test – most commonly an antibody test to detect the presence of antibodies produced in response to exposure to the Lyme disease bacteria or a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to detect the DNA of the bacteria themselves. Both tests are not 100% accurate, however, and may present a false negative in infected dogs.
Treating Lyme disease, in both dogs and people, can be extremely challenging, so prevention is your best course of action. An infected tick must be attached to your dog for 24 to 48 hours before it can transmit Lyme disease, so one of the best ways to prevent Lyme disease infection is to check your dog immediately upon coming in from a walk or any other outdoor activity to make sure no ticks have become attached. If you do find a tick on your dog, remove it immediately using tweezers or your fingernails. You can also try to reduce your dog’s exposure to ticks by keeping him on leash and out of heavy underbrush when walking or hiking and by clearing tall brush and grasses from your yard.
Discuss preventative flea and tick medications with your vet to determine the best product and dosage for your dog, and ask your vet about a Lyme disease vaccine for your dog as well. The Lyme disease vaccine for dogs involves an initial injection followed by a booster shot several weeks later and an annual booster shot after that. Your dog should also be tested for tick-borne diseases every year as part of his annual exam.
While both humans and dogs can become infected with Lyme disease, you can’t get Lyme disease directly from your dog. Lyme disease is only spread through tick bites, not through contact with another infected person or animal. Being vigilant about tick control and prevention measures is the best way to keep you and your family – people and dogs alike – safe from Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.