Lyme Disease in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Lyme disease, the most common tick-transmitted disease in the world, can affect dogs, most domesticated animals, and humans.

In This Article

What is Lyme disease in dogs?

Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which spreads into a dog’s bloodstream through the bite of a tick. Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria can travel to different parts of the body and cause problems in your dog’s organs and joints, as well as overall illness.

While Lyme disease can be carried by many species of ticks, the most common type of tick to transmit the disease is the Deer Tick (also known as the Black-Legged Tick). 

Once a tick attaches itself to a dog, it can take as little as one to two days for it to transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, so prompt removal of ticks is important. Risk of transmission is highest during the spring and fall periods when tick nymphs and adults are actively seeking hosts.

Where do ticks live and how do they get on dogs?

Ticks that carry Lyme disease are especially likely to be found in tall grasses, thick brush, marshes, and woods — especially where deer populations are high. Ticks do not jump but only crawl and in seeking a host, will latch onto your dog when they pass by. 

Lyme disease was named after a high number of cases that occurred in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975, but cases in dogs have been reported in every state in the United States. However, Lyme disease is more common in some geographical locations — specifically, the Northeast, upper Midwest, and northern Pacific coast. Dog owners who live or spend time in these areas should be aware of the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs, as well as the preventative measures available.

Signs & symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs

The symptoms of Lyme disease vary. While many dogs infected with Lyme disease may not exhibit any symptoms, others may show severe signs, including:

  • Lameness

  • Painful, swollen joints

  • Fever

  • Swollen lymph nodes

  • Loss of appetite

  • Lethargy

  • Kidney failure

  • Bruising or unexplained bleeding

Lameness, painful or swollen joints, fever, swollen lymph nodes, loss of appetite, and lethargy are the most common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs and can range in severity. If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to more serious symptoms, like damage to the kidney or the heart and nervous system.

Lyme disease commonly affects the kidneys more than the nervous system or heart. Unfortunately, it is often fatal. In cases of Lyme disease that affect the nervous system, seizure disorders and facial paralysis can occur.

What causes Lyme disease in dogs?

Dogs contract Lyme disease through the bite of infected ticks. These ticks contain the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is a type of organism known as a spirochete.

Common Causes

There are at least four species of ticks in the world known to carry Lyme disease:

  • Ixodes pacificus

  • Ixodes scapularis

  • Ixodes ricinus

  • Ixodes persulcatus

In the United States, the most common source of transmission is the Deer Tick or Black-Legged Tick, scientifically known as Ixodes pacificus on the West Coast and Ixodes scapularis on the East Coast. In Europe, the Ixodes ricinus and Ixodes persulcatus ticks carry Lyme disease.

These ticks are tiny, which can make them hard to see or feel on your dog, and all stages of the tick (larva, nymph, adult) can carry and spread the disease, although adult ticks tend to be the most infectious. It typically takes 24 to 48 hours after attaching to a host for the tick to spread the Lyme-causing bacteria, although transmission of disease can sometimes occur much more rapidly.

Certain areas are more prone to ticks than others. Wooded or grassy areas and areas with large tick populations pose the highest risk of infection. Ticks tend to be most active in the spring and fall when they are actively seeking hosts, which increases the risk of Lyme transmission. However, recent evidence indicates that ticks are also active in winter, as long as the temperature is above freezing.

Diagnosing Lyme disease in dogs

Your veterinarian will diagnose Lyme disease based on your dog’s symptoms, history, and blood work. For example, a veterinarian may automatically suspect Lyme as the possible cause of lameness and fever in a dog from an area with high incidences of Lyme.

To confirm the diagnosis, veterinarians will take blood samples to test for tick antibodies and rule out other potential causes of your dog’s symptoms. In some cases, your veterinarian may also recommend joint taps to assess the fluid in your dog’s joints.

Treatment for Lyme disease in dogs

Veterinarians treat dogs with Lyme disease through a combination of medical therapy and supportive care. A 4-to 6-week course of antibiotics will be prescribed for dogs with clinical signs of Lyme disease, as well as for dogs that have a high antibody level, even if they are asymptomatic. Many owners see improvement within a few days. However, a second round of antibiotics is often required, as the infection may persist through the first round of treatment.

Severe cases of Lyme disease will acquire additional therapy to treat affected kidneys, heart, or nerves, along with supportive care like intravenous fluids. Re-checking blood work is recommended six months after completing antibiotic therapy to determine if treatment has been successful.

There is some debate within the veterinary community as to whether dogs should be treated if they test positive for Lyme disease but are asymptomatic and have a low antibody level. Your veterinarian will speak to you about different options so that you can come up with the best treatment plan for your dog.

Lyme disease can stay in your dog’s body even with antibiotics. In these cases, the disease often flares up when a dog’s immune system is suppressed or weakened, such as during periods of stress. The same antibiotic can be used to treat repeated recurrences of Lyme disease. Unlike other types of infections, the lingering infection is not a direct result of antibiotic resistance.

Additionally, dogs with painful symptoms like lameness may need medications like NSAIDs or steroids to help manage their pain. Restricting exercise is also important for these dogs, and owners can help by keeping their dogs calm and comfortable.

How do I remove a tick from my dog?

Removing a tick from your dog is a procedure that must be done carefully so as not to tear or pop the tick and spread diseases they carry to the affected area. Typically, there are two ways to remove a tick from a dog: with tweezers or using a tick remover. 

For either removal method, there are a few supplies that you’ll want to have on hand:

  • Gloves

  • Clean tweezers / tick remover

  • Antiseptic cream

  • Isopropyl alcohol

Using the tweezer method:

  1. Start by putting on latex gloves to protect yourself from the tick. Ticks like to burrow head first into a dog's skin, so you’ll need to start by separating the hair where the tick has burrowed, leaving your other hand free to pull the tick out.

  2. Using tweezers, get as close to your dog's skin as possible, without actually pinching your dog's skin, then try to grab the tick at its base. Be gentle as you don't want to injure your dog or squeeze the tick so hard it gets crushed and becomes way more difficult to remove.

  3. In one steady motion you will want to begin to pull the tick out of your dog's skin. If you pull too fast, jerk, or twist your hand then you might end up detaching the ticks head from the rest of the body whilst it is still inside of your dog.

  4. After you have pulled the tick out of your dog's skin, it is very important to examine the tick's body to make sure that no parts have been left inside of your dog. If unsure, ask your veterinarian for advice.

  5. Lastly, treat the affected area with rubbing alcohol and antiseptic cream.

Using a tick remover tool:

  1.  Similar to using tweezers, separate your dog’s hair to expose the area where the tick has burrowed to make it easier to remove. 

  2. You will then want to slide the tick remover tool under the tick’s body and lightly hook the body inside of the notch on the tool. 

  3. Slowly rotate the tick remover tool counterclockwise or clockwise until the tick detaches from your dog's skin.

  4. Once the tick has detached from your dog’s skin you will lift it away and check to make sure that all of the tick's body parts are removed from your dog.

  5. Treat the area with rubbing alcohol and antiseptic cream.

If the tick’s head detaches from the body and stays burrowed in your dog’s skin then don’t worry. You will want to take your dog in to see your veterinarian as soon as possible so they can help remove any remaining pieces of the tick that might still be inside of your dog. It’s important to note that the worst thing you can do if the tick’s head remains stuck in your dog is to try to dig the head out of their skin yourself. This will only result in you hurting them and can possibly cause irritation that could lead to an infection.

Is there a cure for Lyme disease in dogs?

There is a cure for Lyme disease. Antibiotics can resolve and in some cases eliminate the infection, and can also be used to treat recurrent infections. However, severe cases of Lyme disease that affect the kidneys, heart, and nervous system can be fatal.

Is Lyme disease in dogs contagious for humans or other pets?

Lyme disease cannot be directly transmitted from an infected dog to humans and other pets. However, dogs can bring infected ticks into the household. These ticks can spread Lyme disease, along with other tick-borne diseases, to humans and other pets, such as cats.

What is the cost of treating Lyme disease in dogs?

The cost of treating Lyme disease depends on the severity of the disease. If caught early, your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics along with a follow-up appointment and regular blood work to monitor the condition. If the infection is severe at the time of diagnosis, on the other hand, your dog may require hospital care with supportive treatments (IV antibiotics, fluids, etc), which will be more expensive. Expect to pay for the initial office visit, diagnostic tests, medications, hospitalization, and any follow-up visits.

Recovery and management of Lyme disease in dogs

You can expect to see improvement in mild cases of Lyme disease in dogs 3 to 5 days into antibiotic therapy. Severe cases may take longer and can be fatal if kidney damage is too advanced.

Antibiotics do not always eliminate Lyme disease. Dogs infected with Lyme disease will be prone to recurrence of the infection in the future, but antibiotics can be used again to treat the condition.

Owners can help manage their dog’s condition by complying with their veterinarian’s advice and following the instructions on the medication. Learning to recognize the signs of Lyme disease will also help owners get their dogs started on medication as soon as possible to prevent serious side effects in the future.

How to prevent Lyme disease in dogs

Lyme disease is preventable. The best way to avoid contracting Lyme disease is to avoid areas with high concentrations of ticks, like woods and grassy areas. Ticks are most active during the summer and fall, but infections are common during the summer as well as the winter in areas with mild winters. You should always manually check your dog (and yourself) for ticks after going for walks in tick-infested areas.

Administering a monthly tick preventative will also help prevent Lyme disease. Many of these preventatives kill ticks before they have had a chance to attach for 24 hours, reducing the risk of infection. There is also a vaccination that may be recommended for your dog if you regularly frequent high-risk areas. If you live in an area with severe infestations of ticks, you may also want to consider treating your yard, although pesticide treatments carry risks of their own that should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Is there a vaccine for Lyme disease in dogs?

Yes. Your veterinarian may recommend the Lyme vaccine if your dog lives in a high-risk area or is in high-risk situations regularly. Like all vaccines, the Lyme vaccine is not 100 percent effective. Even with vaccination, your dog will still need monthly preventatives, and you should still take other preventative measures, like avoiding areas with ticks and manually checking your dog for ticks.

Other canine diseases carried by ticks

Lyme disease isn’t the only disease carried by ticks. In fact, there are several canine diseases to be aware of, especially if your dog lives in an area with a known tick problem. Some of the most common tick-borne diseases that affect dogs include: Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, Bartonellosis, and Hepatozoonosis. 

  • Canine Ehrlichiosis: a common tick-borne disease caused by the Brown Dog Tick. Canine Ehrlichiosis can be extremely dangerous, especially since symptoms can go months without being detectable once it is transmitted. Symptoms include depression, fever, loss of appetite, nose bleeds, runny nose and eyes, swollen limbs, and weight loss. 

  • Canine Anaplasmosis: often also referred to as dog tick fever and dog fever. Canine Anaplasmosis is transmitted from the Deer Tick and the Western Black-Legged Tick. Symptoms include loss of appetite, fever, lethargy, stiff joints, diarrhea, vomiting, and in more severe cases seizures.

  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in dogs: this disease is transmitted from a variety of types of ticks depending on the location. The types of ticks that carry this disease includes the American Dog Tick, the Lone Star Tick, the Brown Dog Tick, and the Wood Tick. Generally, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in dogs lasts about two weeks, but severe cases could be fatal. Symptoms of this disease include abdominal pain, coughing, lack of appetite, depression, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, stiffness, neurological problems, swelling of the legs or face, and skin lesions. 

  • Canine Babesiosis: although this disease is typically transmitted by the American Dog Tick and the Brown Dog Tick, it’s also possible for dogs to transmit it to other dogs when an infected dog has oral lesions or abrasions and bites another dog. Signs of babesiosis in dogs include anemia, dark urine, fever, depression, pale gums, weakness, vomiting, enlarged spleen, and swollen lymph nodes.

  • Canine Bartonellosis: a disease that comes from the Brown Dog Tick and if left untreated can result in heart or liver disease. Symptoms of Bartonellosis in dogs include fever, intermittent lameness, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, cough, nasal discharge, and inflammation of the heart muscles, nose, lymph nodes, eye, and brain.

  • Canine Hepatozoonosis: this disease can be transmitted when dogs consume the Brown Dog Tick and the Gulf Coast Tick. Symptoms of Hepatozoonosis in dogs include fever, reduced appetite, lethargy, runny eyes and nose, weight loss, discharge from the nose and eyes, unwillingness to move, muscle pain, and bloody diarrhea.

Summary of Lyme disease in dogs

Lyme disease is transmitted via tick bites, and can cause lameness, swollen joints and even kidney failure. While it can be treated if the case is not too severe, prevention is best. The best way to prevent an infection is to reduce your dog’s exposure to ticks and stay up-to-date on monthly preventatives and Lyme vaccinations.

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