HEALTH & CARE

Lyme Disease in Dogs: Signs and Possible Treatment Solutions

Scratching dog in grass
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Summer can be a great time to spend outdoors with your dog. Being cooped up all winter may have put a few pounds on him, so getting him out and about can certainly make a difference. Some well-needed sunshine, exercise and fresh air will definitely do him a lot of good. However, being outside also exposes him to a lot of parasites and bugs carrying infectious diseases that can make him very sick. One such parasite is the tick, which is known for carrying very debilitating bloodborne diseases, such as anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease.

Lyme disease in dogs can be one of the most troublesome diseases to deal with, as it can be very difficult to detect when your dogs has fleas. And by the time you do, the disease may already be transmitted. It’s a very debilitating disease that can affect the future of your dog’s health for the rest of his life. Taking the proper measures to look out for the first symptoms, obtaining preventative to keep ticks off your dog, and ensuring that you provide the proper treatment when your dog is infected are all essential to protecting the quality of your dog’s life even after infection.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is known as the most commonly transmitted disease through tick bites throughout the world. It’s a bacterial infection that results in the inflammation of the joints, and can make it very painful for dogs to get around.

Lyme disease in the wood

This pain may also lead to depression and a loss of appetite, which further causes a dog’s health to deteriorate. Left untreated, the infection can progress and cause further complications, such as damage to the kidneys, the heart and the nervous system.

Young dogs are more susceptible to the diseases than older dogs, and there are breeds that are more prone to damage being done to their kidneys like: Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and Bernese Mountain dogs. Because it has been reported in a majority of the United States and Europe, taking the necessary steps to keep this disease under control is very important.

How do I know if my dog has been bitten?

Ticks are very small, but are still visible to the naked eye. One of the best ways for you to tell if your dog has been infested with ticks is to feel through your dog’s fur carefully for any small bumps. The ears, between the toes, and in their armpits are some of the tick’s favorite places to feast on, as they are quite warm and make good hiding places. You can find anything from the size of a pinhead to a small grape, depending on how long the tick has been feasting on your dog.

Tiny but terrible tick

When you do find a tick, it is important that you don’t try to remove it with your fingers. Although myths state that burning off a tick will do the trick, this should never be attempted, as this not only puts your dog at risk for being burned, but it can also cause the tick to bury its head further into your dog’s skin and make it more difficult to remove. Using a pair of tweezers, try to grab the tick’s head, and pull very gently until it gets separated from the skin.

Pulling too hard can cause part of the tick to break off. Once removed, place the tick in a container with alcohol and bring it to your vet for it to be tested. The more quickly you notice the tick on your dog and remove it, the less likely that the Lyme disease bacteria would have been transmitted.

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs?

The cause of Lyme disease is the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that is carried by deer ticks. Infection typically occurs after the tick as been attached to your dog for at least eighteen hours, so it’s important that you check your dogs on a regular basis to ensure that they haven’t been infested with these parasites. Once infected, different dogs may show different symptoms, and these symptoms are not the same that are seen in humans.

Some dogs may have constant severe lameness from inflammation while others may have acute lameness that only lasts for a few days, but recurs every few days or even weeks later. Lameness may not always occur in the same limbs either, and can be interchangeable over time.

Dog with Lyme disease at the vet fighting to stay on feet

Another one of the serious symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs is that kidney problems may develop.

This can progress into what is called glomerulonephritis, where the kidneys themselves become inflamed and lead to the overall dysfunctions of the kidneys’ glomeruli. This serves as the blood filter, so toxins and other harmful substances that would have normally been removed from the blood are free to roam, which can lead to secondary problems. This can further progress to complete kidney failure, and your dog may suffer weight loss, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, increased urination, fluid buildup in the abdomen, tissues and the body, and under the skin.

Some of the other important symptoms to look out for are:

  • the skin is sensitive to touch
  • your dog has a stiff walk with an arched back
  • there is difficulty breathing
  • fever and depression from inflammation of the joints
  • swollen lymph nodes near the site of the original tick bite
  • abnormalities of the heart

How is Lyme disease diagnosed?

When you have brought your dog to the vet, he will likely take a thorough background history of your dog in order to determine the source of your dog’s symptoms. Be sure to keep an accurate record of your own when you do notice that your dog is behaving abnormally, as this will help him with his diagnosis. Blood will be taken from your dog to be tested, as well as a urinalysis. Fluid can also be taken from the joints in order to be further tested.

Blood sample for testing

The tests will reveal if there is the presence of the Lyme disease bacteria in his blood, as well as the source of the fluid retention in the joints. Because the symptoms of Lyme disease are very similar to common arthritis, it can be difficult to obtain a direct diagnosis, but the blood panel should be able to reveal the presence of antibodies designed to fight off the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease so that an effective treatment option can be provided and started.

What are the treatment options?

Treatment for Lyme disease in dogs involve on trying various antibiotics to see which ones work best for your dog. Different dogs can react differently to different medications, depending on the breed, age, and the strength of his immune system to continue battling the disease. You may have to try different ones if your dog starts suffering from adverse side effects, or you may be lucky and find one on your first try.

It is important, however, that you maintain the regular regimen of medications so that your dog continues to benefit. Missing any medication could result in a flare-up of the bacteria and may even result in a resistant-strain developing that the antibiotics will no longer work on.

Along with medication, there are other steps that you can take to ensure that your dog is comfortable. Keep your dog as warm and dry as possible in order to help relieve the pain in his joints. His regular exercise and activity should also be controlled in order to avoid strain and until he has shown signs of improvement. This period of treatment typically lasts for four weeks.

If there has been no improvement within three to five days, then speak to veterinarian immediately in order to consider a different diagnosis. Even after the bacteria have been completely eliminated, the symptoms may still continue. In these cases, long-term care is required to help keep your dog as comfortable as possible.

What prevention steps can be taken?

Prevention is the first important step in ensuring that your dog is never infected with the disease. There are a number of preventative steps that can be taken, one of the easiest ones being to prevent your dog being infested with ticks in the first place. You can avoid taking your dog to tick-infested areas where deer are known to roam, such as the woods and big open fields. If you live near one of these areas, then it’s important that you check your dog for ticks before taking him inside.

Lyme disease bites

Special measures can be taken to make your dogs more unappetizing to ticks so that they never latch on in the first place. Here are a few useful preventatives that can be applied to your dog.

  • Insecticides: monthly topical products can be applied to your dog’s fur that keeps the ticks away. There are many on the market to choose from, but it’s important that you don’t choose generics or products that you find on the Internet. Discussing tick prevention with your vet can make it easier for you to make an informed choice about what should be used on your dog, and ensure that you’re not jeopardizing your dog’s health.
    Flea and tick shampoos and powders can also be used on a regular basis to prevent ticks. Powders should be combed through your dog’s fur in order to have an effective barrier against ticks.
  • Natural methods: If you’re not interested in using chemicals to keep ticks away, there are plenty of natural methods that can be used to keep ticks at bay. You can dilute some cedar oil and soak your dog’s bandana in it every time you’re ready to take him outside. Ticks hate the smell of cedar and will avoid it at all costs. Spraying and combing diluted lemon juice through your dog’s fur has also been known to make him less desirable towards ticks.
    If you want to work from the inside out, adding one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to his drinking water for every forty pounds not only makes him tick repellant, but it also improves your dog’s skin and coat.

No matter which method you choose, keeping ticks away from your dog is paramount to ensuring that he’s never infected with the debilitating disease in the first place. There are pros and cons to either methods: insecticides work much longer and only need to be applied once a month, while natural methods can be used on dogs of any age, size or breed, and are unlikely to have any adverse side effects on your dog’s health. As long as there is some measure of prevention taken, your dog will be thankful to you for it.

Lyme vaccine for dogs

Vaccination is also an option that should be discussed with your vet. Be aware that your vet may not recommend vaccines if you don’t live in or don’t intend to enter areas where ticks are a common problem. Lyme vaccines have been criticized for being ineffective, and there have been a few cases where dogs end up contracting the disease.

However, there have been studies that have shows that vaccinated animals are less likely to contract the disease than dogs that haven’t been vaccinated. These vaccinations can be started while your dog is still a puppy, and receive boosters on an annual basis in order to further protect against the disease in the future. There are various types of Lyme disease vaccines: some of them kill the bacteria cells entirely, while others are recombine vaccines that have been created from antibodies that have been exposed to the disease.

Controlling your own back yard can make it very difficult for ticks to venture into your boundaries in the first place. Mowing your lawn on a regular basis and pulling tall weeds make it more difficult for ticks to hide. Make sure that garbage cans are made inaccessible to rats and mice, who can carry these ticks with them into your yard. Removing litter from your yard can also help to keep them away from the areas where your dog tends to roam.

Chemical control agents can also be added to your yard to ensure that it remains tick-free. The use of biodegradable tubes that contain permethrine-treated cotton batting in areas where ticks are known to be present have shown promise in keeping them away. How this works is that the mice and rodents who may be carrying the ticks use the cotton as bedding material and carry it back to their nests. The chemical kills any exposed larvae and nymphs that may be living within their dwelling.

However, it is ineffective against the adult ticks, who are still free to lay more eggs and multiply their numbers in the future. Nematodes have also been known to eat the larvae and nymphs of ticks, and won’t have an adverse effect on your lawn. They’re microscopic, so you never have to worry about seeing any creepy crawlies in your lawn, but care is necessary in order to ensure their survival. Speak with a specialist to learn about the introduction and care of nematodes in your yard.

Can Lyme disease from dogs be transmitted to humans?

There have been speculations that the presence of the Lyme disease-causing bacteria in your dog’s saliva and urine can be transmissible to humans. However, tests have rarely ever found the presence of the bacteria in a dog’s urine. The bacteria cannot live for very long in a dog’s saliva or urine, reducing the chances that you can contract it from your dog.

However, it is possible that the ticks themselves can transmit the diseases instead, which is why it is vital that you always check your dog on a regular basis. Dogs have been known to respond very well to antibiotics in the treatment of their symptoms, but humans are not so lucky when it comes to getting over Lyme disease.

Lyme disease grafic

Treating a tick infestation on your dog is one thing, but safeguarding the health of your pet is vital and should be taken very seriously. Taking those essential steps to preventing your dog from getting bitten by a tick in the first place will improve upon the quality of his life for years to come. Tick control isn’t something that a dog owner can be lackadaisical about, and requires constant vigilance and patience in preventing these parasites from choosing your dog as a tasty snack.

Lyme disease can become quite debilitating, and although is treatable, your dog is put at risk of flareups in the future. A happy dog will certainly be more thankful and have a more rewarding life during his senior years then a dog who has to go through constant bouts of joint pain. Lyme disease isn’t the only debilitating infection your dog can be infected with, and having multiple infections can jeopardize his health and make it more difficult for him to combat any of them on his own.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • Emily Pearson

    It’s a good thing that lyme disease can be fully treated with antibiotics. While out vet informed us of the heated debate relating kidney diseases to lyme disease, our efforts are focused on trating it with regular antibiotics. One good news is that some dogs learn to make antibodies for lyme disease on their own, which equips them in case of future infection. I dearly hope that’s the case with our dog.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      This is true, Emily. Lyme disease is treatable, provided that the assessment and medical management are prompt. Current veterinary research is still in the process of improving how to treat Lyme disease, as well as other dangerous illnesses with high hopes that one day, everything can be treated faster with less complications.

  • Michelle Drew

    There’s a snap test (which gives a yes/no) and a quantitative c56. The difference between the two is that the latter is more detailed and give a rough estimate of the amount of antibodies in your dog. It may be expensive but it is more accurate and gives a bigger picture. If within six months you get another test (after treating the disease, of course!) and that one shows a lowering of antibodies you can consider your dog treated! At least that’s what we faced, and we’re willing to share our story for other dog owners who are facing this situation.

    • Wyatt Robinson

      In general, tests that provide broader coverage are really more expensive but some of them take a while to get the results. The snap test can take care of the definitive answer needed right there and then. In addition to this, your veterinarian can also perceive which one is more suitable for immediate and routine testing.

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