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Let’s Talk About Lyme Disease

It is peak tick season so we asked a veterinarian for tips on how to prevent this dreaded disease.

by Kristopher S. Sharpe, DVM, DACVIM
Updated July 5, 2022
A woman checking her dog for ticks outside in a grassy field.
Daniel Gonzalez / Stocksy

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

If you spend time outdoors, do yourself and your pup a favor, and search their fur for ticks when you return home before it’s too late. Dogs can pick up these awful bloodsuckers while out hiking, walking, and even in your own backyard.

While Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the U.S., many pet parents don’t realize that their dog is also at risk for Lyme disease from infected ticks. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause heart complications, joint disease, and permanent nervous system damage in dogs. Here is what you should know about Lyme disease in dogs and how to prevent it.

So, what is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted by Ixodes ticks (commonly referred to as deer ticks or black-legged ticks). These ticks are commonly found in the Northeast, can be as small as a poppy seed, and can be easily missed in the folds behind the ears, between the toes, armpits, around the neck, and groin area.

It’s a common misconception that ticks are only a summer problem, but if the temperatures are 50 degrees or warmer, they can be a problem year-round. And the problem is only getting worse because tick populations have exploded in the past 15 years — meaning more ticks and more affected areas (did you know that ticks can even be found in Antarctica?).

What do you do if you see a tick on your dog?

If you spot one of these pesky buggers on your pup, you should remove it ASAP. “Very carefully, go under the head of the tick with tweezers and just pull out the mouth of the tick, which is embedded in the skin,” instructs Dr. Brian Fallon, who directs the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research at Columbia University Medical Center. To avoid tearing the tick and spreading possible infections into the bite area:

  • Use fine-point tweezers.

  • Pull straight upward, in a slow and steady motion, to prevent the tick’s mouth from breaking off and remaining embedded in your dog’s skin.

  • Don’t squeeze the tick’s body which will transfer possible infection into the skin.

If you are unable to remove the tick yourself, consult with your veterinarian.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs?

The good news is that most dogs exposed to Lyme disease are able to fight off the infection themselves and do not develop an illness that requires treatment. In fact, clinical signs of Lyme disease are seen only in approximately five to 15 percent of infected canine cases. It’s hard to diagnose in dogs because the symptoms are often delayed and appear similar to many other diseases.

The first symptoms of Lyme are often generalized pain, limping, or changes in eating habits. Lameness can appear suddenly, shift from one leg to another, and even disappear temporarily. Some describe it as “walking on eggshells.”

Other common clinical signs associated with Lyme disease infection include mild fever, lethargy, mild lymph node enlargement, joint swelling (arthritis in one or multiple joints), lameness (limping or abnormal walking/running behavior), and discomfort. In rare cases, dogs can develop a serious form of kidney disease that results in increased drinking, urinating, and decreased appetite.

  • Fever

  • Swollen lymph nodes

  • Joint swelling

  • Limping or Lameness

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of appetite

Ask a Vet

Sudden scratching? Finicky food eater? Loose poop? Whatever pet health question is on your mind, our veterinary pros are here to help.

How is Lyme disease in dogs treated?

Lyme disease in dogs is treated with a longer course of an antibiotic, usually doxycycline. Pups with typical signs of Lyme disease usually respond to treatment within days, and antibiotics are continued for up to a total of 28 days. Dogs with the rare kidney form of the disease require aggressive treatment, and the prognosis is guarded.

Do all ticks carry Lyme disease?

Dogs, and rarely cats, can get several infections, including Lyme disease, transmitted by ticks. The infections transferred by ticks are different depending on the region of the country and the type of tick present to transmit the disease. “Reported cases of Lyme have tripled in the past few decades,” says Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist Kiersten Kugeler.

On the East Coast, Kugeler says most people catch Lyme near their homes, not just when hiking or camping. Blacklegged ticks, which carry Lyme, can be as small as a poppy seed and like to hang out in the nooks and crannies of the body.

There are helpful tools to determine your regional Lyme risk:

  • Check your state health department’s website to see if Lyme is in your area

  • Save the tick you pull and have it tested in a lab to see if it was carrying Lyme

  • Take a picture of the tick and send it to the TickEncounter Resource Center, where others can identify the tick

  • Companion Animal Parasite Council’s Parasite Prevalence Map

Preventing Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Check your dog’s fur.

Always inspect your dog thoroughly after walks through the woods or grassy settings. The areas between toes, under the tail, and around their mouth, eyes, and ears (do not forget the inside of the ears) are especially attractive to ticks.

Remove ticks immediately.

The sooner you find and remove a tick, the less likely it is that your dog will contract a secondary illness like Lyme disease from tick bites.

Use flea and tick preventives.

Did you know that most flea and tick medications don’t prevent ticks from jumping onto or even biting your dog? They kill ticks once they bite. In most cases, ticks must be attached for 24-48 hours to transmit Lyme disease, so preventative medications help thwart the disease’s spread. Consult with your veterinarian about the most appropriate product for your dog.

Keep grass as short as possible and stay on paths.

Refrain from walking into grassy patches, if possible. If hiking in the woods, try to keep on hike paths away from high-growth vegetation.

Get your dog vaccinated for Lyme disease.

Vaccination could prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease; however, the vaccine may not be appropriate for some dogs. Discuss the vaccine with your veterinarian to see what is possible for your pet.

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Kristopher S. Sharpe, DVM, DACVIM

Kristopher S. Sharpe, DVM, DACVIM is Board Certified in Veterinary Internal Medicine, Medical Director, Grand Rapids, BluePearl Pet Hospital.