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Lyme Disease in Dogs (IMPORTANT Stuff You Should Know)

If you’re worried about Lyme disease, you’re not alone. Affecting both humans and dogs, Lyme disease is transmitted through tick bites and can result in a variety of symptoms, some minor and some severe. Because it manifests so differently based on the individual, and because it’s often asymptomatic, there are many misconceptions about Lyme disease, especially in dogs.

Though Lyme disease has long been thought of as a scary and debilitating condition, things are beginning to change. Thanks to recent advances in testing and treatments, we now understand Lyme disease much better than we did just a few years ago. By demystifying the disease, we can alleviate some of our fears about it and prepare both ourselves and our pups to avoid it.

Let’s go over some of the most common questions people have about their dogs and Lyme disease. Questions like – “How does your dog contract it?,” and “How long can your dog live with it,” to “How is it treated?” With this knowledge, you’ll be able to prevent your dog from contracting the disease and know what to do if your dog gets infected.

The Basics of Lyme Disease

What Causes Lyme Disease?

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Most people believe that ticks cause Lyme disease, but this is only partly true. Lyme disease is caused by bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, which is picked up by deer ticks when they feed on infected animals. When a tick carrying the bacteria finishes its feeding — which may be you or your dog — bacteria from the tick’s saliva gets left behind, entering its new host.

Where Can Lyme Disease Be Contracted?

Deer ticks are found all over the 48 contiguous United States, with high concentrations in New England, the upper Midwest and northern California. They live in many different environments but are most commonly found in forests, wetlands, and areas with dense vegetation. Although ticks aren’t active when it’s below freezing, they begin to emerge after a few days of warming temperatures, and from then on they remain active until temperatures drop below freezing again.

Is Lyme Disease Contagious?

Lyme disease is only contagious through ticks, not between other species. A dog with Lyme disease won’t transmit it to a human or to other dogs, and vice versa. However, a tick can transmit Lyme disease several times in succession, so if a Lyme-carrying tick moves from your dog to you, it can transmit the disease to both of you.

How Long Does It Take to Be Infected by Lyme Disease?

In the past, it was believed that a tick needs to be attached to a dog for at least 48 hours to transmit Lyme disease, but recent studies have shown that far less time is needed. In some cases, Lyme disease was contracted in less than 24 hours after the initial bite.

Do All Infected Dogs Develop Lyme Disease?

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Thankfully, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease usually doesn’t cause any symptoms despite being present in the body. In fact, only 5-10% of dogs that test positive for the bacteria ever show any symptoms. The remaining 90-95% are still considered to have the disease, but since they aren’t affected by it in any way, vets usually don’t prescribe any treatment.

Lyme Disease Symptoms

Are There Different Types of Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease can take on four distinct forms, each with different symptoms: acute Lyme, subacute Lyme, chronic Lyme, and Lyme nephritis. Any of the first three types may occur initially; from there, the disease may progress to another form or remain within the same form. Lyme nephritis is a late-stage form of Lyme disease that occurs after the disease has already caused damage.

What Are the Symptoms of Each Type of Lyme Disease?

Acute Lyme disease is the least severe form of the disease. It often presents as lameness and inflammation in one or more legs; a limb may be affected for a few days and then improve while another limb becomes swollen and weak. Other common symptoms include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, and swollen lymph nodes.

Subacute Lyme disease is more severe than acute Lyme. In subacute Lyme, lameness and inflammation are also present, but they persist longer and cause more pain than they do in acute Lyme. Arthritis may also occur.

In chronic Lyme, the lameness and inflammation that are characteristic of the disease may still be present, but severe neurological and cardiac symptoms are more concerning. Irregular heartbeat and behavioral changes are common in this form of Lyme disease, as is kidney failure.

Lyme nephritis is rare; most dogs with Lyme disease do not progress to this stage, which is caused by kidney damage from other forms of the disease. However, some breeds are more prone to it than others, mainly Labs and Golden Retrievers. Vomiting, muscle deterioration, and edema are all commonly seen in dogs with Lyme nephritis, which is usually fatal.

How Long Does It Take for Lyme Disease to Present Symptoms?

Once infected with the bacteria, your dog will take two to five months to start displaying any symptoms of Lyme disease. This is the stage where bacteria is present in the body but not actively causing symptoms. Because of this, there can be quite a long gap in between the tick bite and the first signs.

Lyme Disease Diagnosis and Treatment

Are There Other Conditions Similar to Lyme Disease?

Several other tick-borne illnesses can present similarly to Lyme disease, or coincide with it. Babesiosis and ehrlichiosis are also spread by ticks and can cause fatigue, pain, fever, and loss of appetite. When considering a diagnosis of Lyme disease, a vet will first attempt to rule out these conditions.

Are There Tests for Lyme Disease?

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Several different blood tests are used when diagnosing Lyme disease. None of the tests are definitive, as they only measure whether or not a dog has been exposed to the bacteria; they are unable to say for sure whether Lyme disease is the cause of any symptoms or whether it will cause symptoms in the future. In areas with high concentrations of ticks, 75% or more of dogs can test positive for the disease, though only 5% of those dogs may ever be symptomatic.

Blood tests may also show false positives in dogs that have received certain Lyme disease vaccines. Occasionally, testing may produce a false negative result, particularly if a Lyme-carrying tick bit the dog within the past four weeks. The bacteria require about four weeks of incubation before it accumulates in detectable levels.

How Is Acute Lyme Disease Treated?

In cases of acute and subacute Lyme disease, the infection is usually cured after a round of antibiotics. The most commonly prescribed antibiotics for Lyme are doxycycline and amoxicillin, and treatment usually lasts between four and eight weeks. Within a few days after beginning the antibiotics, symptoms will begin to improve, but the full course of medication must be completed to ensure that the infection doesn’t return.

Your dog may still seem pained and uncomfortable while taking the antibiotics, but vets don’t usually prescribe painkillers for Lyme disease. Because it’s so difficult to diagnose Lyme disease, the symptoms need to be carefully monitored during treatment to ensure that the Lyme bacteria truly caused them. Painkillers will mask the symptoms, causing them to appear as if they’re improving, even if they aren’t. So Vets are hesitant to use them concurrently with antibiotics.

If symptoms don’t resolve after a round of antibiotics, or if they clear up and then return later, the dog may be rediagnosed with chronic Lyme disease. However, even if symptoms never recur, the dog is still likely to carry small amounts of the bacteria for the rest of its life, as antibiotics rarely eliminate the infection.

How Is Chronic Lyme Disease Treated?

Lyme disease that doesn’t respond to a round of antibiotics is considered chronic Lyme. Treatment for this form of the disease is focused more on the dog’s specific symptoms rather than the infection in general. The vet may continue to prescribe antibiotics in addition to medications that relieve pain, inflammation and nausea, depending on which symptoms the dog displays.

Because chronic Lyme disease has long-term effects on the kidneys, urine tests are performed every three to six months to monitor for protein in the urine. Fully functional kidneys will filter protein out of the urine, so if a dog’s urine tests positive for proteins, kidney damage has likely occurred. In these cases, vets will treat for kidney disease, which may involve longer antibiotic courses, IV fluids or hospitalization.

How Is Lyme Nephritis Treated?

Lyme nephritis, the most serious form of Lyme disease, is considered a fatal condition. Treatment is usually palliative in nature, intended to alleviate symptoms and provide comfort rather than provide a cure. Dogs with Lyme nephritis will usually receive IV fluids and should be fed a special diet to reduce strain on the kidneys and digestive system.

How Long Can a Dog Live with Lyme Disease?

A sad dog has lyme disease

Most dogs with acute or subacute Lyme disease will live just as long as dogs without the disease. Once the initial symptoms are cleared up by antibiotics, the bacteria may still be present in the body — but in such small concentrations that it won’t cause any ill effects. Overall, there is no decrease in either life expectancy or quality of life for dogs with these forms of Lyme disease.

Chronic Lyme and Lyme nephritis are still poorly researched conditions, and it’s not known exactly how they impact life expectancy. These forms of the disease ultimately cause kidney failure, which is the primary cause of death for many dogs with Lyme. Once diagnosed with kidney failure, dogs can live for up to four years, though many succumb to the disease within months or even weeks.

Lyme nephritis, in particular, is a painful condition, and the kidney damage it causes requires costly ongoing treatment and testing. Many owners of dogs with Lyme nephritis opt to euthanize rather than prolong the dog’s suffering.

Lyme Disease Prevention

Are There Vaccines for Lyme Disease?

Several vaccines are available for various forms of Lyme disease. Because the bacteria mutates, vaccinated dogs aren’t completely immune to Lyme disease, but they are protected against many of the most common forms. Do keep in mind that some dogs aren’t able to receive certain Lyme vaccines for health reasons. But your vet will be able to examine your dog and let you know which vaccinations are suitable.

Lyme vaccines are considered safe, contrary to the popular myth that they can make Lyme disease worse if it’s contracted in the future. Aside from the typical tenderness and itching around the needle site, there are typically no ill effects associated with the Lyme vaccines. They can cause false positives on certain Lyme disease tests, however, so if you have your dog tested for Lyme in the future make sure to mention the vaccines.

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How Do You Keep Ticks Off Your Dog?

The best way to keep ticks away from your dog is by applying a topical flea and tick medication on a regular basis. Oral tick preventatives are also available, though they’re relatively new and you may have a harder time finding a vet who will prescribe them. Due to increased resistance based on location, certain medications may be ineffective against ticks in your area, so consult your local vet before making a purchase.

Tick collars are inexpensive and can be purchased over the counter, but they’re less effective than oral and topical medications. Collars can also be easily removed and may get snagged on branches as your dog runs by, presenting both a safety and an efficacy hazard.

How Do You Remove Ticks from Your Dog?

Regardless of which tick prevention method you use, it’s good practice to check your dog thoroughly for ticks each time it comes inside. Make sure to check sensitive areas like the insides of the ears, the armpits, and the anus.

If you see a tick, don’t try to pull it off with your fingers; doing so could crush the tick, causing it to spit and release the Lyme bacteria. Use tweezers or a specialized tick removal tool to dislodge the tick from your dog safely. If you spot a tick in a difficult to reach area, such as deep inside the ear, go to a vet to have the tick removed.

"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret

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