Lyme Disease in Dogs: Science-based Look, Prevention & Treatment

Lyme Disease in Dogs and Science-based Look Treatment Prevention

Deer Ticks Causes Canine Lymes Disease in DogsLyme disease in dogs is very common in the United States. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with it.

Unlike many other canine diseases, Lyme disease is also prevalent among humans, thus making it a hot topic among veterinarians and health professionals alike.

It’s been recognized that dogs serve as sentinels for Lyme disease risks to people [1, 2, 3].

Most pet parents are unaware of the prevention, treatments and causes of Lyme diseases in dogs.

Diagnosis of Lyme disease is still a tricky business, and remains a topic of multiple debates [4].

Studies show that as many as one million people in the US may get Lyme disease every year [5].

There’s no accurate number for canine Lyme disease. However, experts calculate that the increase among the human population applies to dogs, and it’s likely that there are far more cases of dogs contracting Lyme disease than people [6].

Using scientific evidence, this article aims to introduce owners to dog Lyme disease, and how to effectively prevent and treat it.

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is one of the top tick-transmitted diseases on the globe [4]. It was first recognized in people in 1975, and in dogs in 1985.

Lyme disease is typically spread by the deer ticks, which are very small arachnids, biting animals without being detected.

The disease is caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi which the ticks become infected with by feeding on small animals like mice. When the tick bites another animal, like a dog, they spread the bacteria to them.

Sources of Lyme disease

Lyme Disease in Dogs in United States
Photo: lymeinfo.ca

In the United States, Lyme disease is most prevalent in the Northeast and the Midwest, and along the Pacific coast, although it has been found all over the country [7, 8, 9, 10, 11].

Most experts agree that only a small portion of the country is endemic for Lyme disease, however. This can be due to a high concentration of people with pets in those areas [12].

The disease is also very common in Europe, Canada and many other countries [1, 13, 14, 15, 16].

How is Lyme disease transmitted?

Nymphs and adult female deer ticks are the ones who transmit the disease.

Studies show that it takes about 24-48 hours of attachment for Lyme disease to be transmitted [17, 18]. If the tick is removed before the time runs out, the dog may not attract any infections at all.

In fact, research suggests that out of all dogs exposed to B. burgdorferi, only 10% contract Lyme disease [19, 20].

After the tick has had its meal, it detaches and has no need for biting anybody else.

Can it be transmitted to people?

Lyme disease is considered a zoonotic disease, but there is no evidence that people can contract it from pets [12].

Although highly unlikely, detached ticks who for some reason didn’t feed themselves on the dog can crawl on humans and infect people that way [21].

However, studies show that there’s no increased risk of Lyme disease among people owning dogs [1].

Bottom Line: Lyme disease is transmitted through deer ticks. Dogs in certain parts of the country are at a higher risk. Lyme disease cannot be transmitted from pets to people.

Deer Ticks

Lyme Disease in Dogs - Science-based Look Treatment Prevention

Deer ticks are responsible for transmitting Lyme disease in dogs [22].

Their official scientific name is Ixodes scapularis, and they’re also known as Blacklegged ticks or Bear ticks.

Deer ticks are one of the most common in the US, alongside American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), Lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) and Groundhog tick (Ixodes cookei) [23].

These ticks are smaller than the well-known American dog ticks.

Life cycle of ticks

Deer ticks live 2-3 years, and there are several stages/life cycles that deer ticks go through [24].

The cycle begins when the female tick lays eggs. In spring, the eggs mature and develop into larvae, and start feeding on small mammals like mouse.

The larvae becomes infected with B. burgdorferi and turns into a nymph the following spring. At this point, nymphs start feeding either on same small animals or sometimes bigger mammals.

After this, the tick enters its last stage and becomes an adult tick. Adult deer ticks mostly feed on larger mammals like deer, humans and dogs. It then lays eggs that hatch the following spring.

For the whole process to work, the tick(s) has to remain consistently infected. Breaking the life cycle using certain methods (mentioned below) means the tick will become “ineffective.”

Deer Tick Life Cycle

How to remove ticks from a dog?

Dog owners who are confident about removing ticks from their dogs don’t need to go to the vet as long as you remove it before 24 hours have passed.

Removing a tick from the dog isn’t complicated, but you need to be careful.

How to remove a tick:

  1. Using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the surface as possible
  2. Do not jerk or twist the tick, keep it very steady
  3. Confidently pull the tick upwards
  4. Ensure that no tick’s mouth parts are left on the skin
  5. Clean the area and hands with alcohol and/or soap
  6. Dispose of the tick by placing it in alcohol (don’t crush it)

Do not use any alternative medicine methods. Simply pulling the tick out will work just fine.

If the dog begins to develop fever or other unusual symptoms after the tick has been pulled, see the vet immediately.

Dogs do not develop rashes like people do, so make sure you observe your pet for a while.

Bottom Line: Deer ticks live 2-3 years and have very specific life cycles. Breaking the cycle will “disinfect” the tick.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs

The time between infection and the appearance of any symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs is usually 2 to 5 months.

Lyme disease symptoms in dogs are different to those observed in humans, and canines are less likely to show the symptoms [25, 26, 27, 28].

In fact, up to 90 percent of dogs that are affected don’t show any symptoms at all [19, 20].

Lyme disease symptoms can be brief or recurring for dogs. These can include:

  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Painful or swollen joints
  • Lameness, which may get worse over time or shift from one leg to another.
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Hyperthermia
  • Neurological disease (rarely seen in dogs, but it is possible)
  • Polydypsia (increased water consumption)
  • Kidney disease symptoms (vomiting, loss of appetite, depression, high thirst, change in urination rates)

Complications with kidney functions, heart problems or central nervous system issues are very rare among canines, but this does occur.

How is Lyme disease diagnosed?

Lyme disease in dogs is normally diagnosed through blood tests at the clinic [29].

Some dogs will test positive for Lyme disease but they don’t necessarily have it. What this means is that they most likely have been exposed to the infection, but their antibodies have fought and won the battle.

Only 10% of dogs exposed to the infection actually contract Lyme disease [19, 20].

Because of this, blood test results will be compared with other methods and information about the dog to draw a more accurate conclusion [29, 30].

Bottom Line: Lyme disease symptoms vary greatly; serious complications are rare. Only 10% of dogs contract Lyme disease, of those infected about 90% do not show any symptoms at all.

How is Canine Lyme Disease Treated?

How is Lyme Disease in Dogs Treated

Lyme disease in dogs that has been detected early can usually be treated quickly with antibiotics [31, 32, 33, 34].

When a dog has been bitten by a tick, you should diligently watch the dog for signs of Lyme disease.

At the first sign of illness, take them to a veterinarian. Even though the treatment is pretty straightforward, Lyme disease is very persistent.

The two most common antibiotic Lyme disease treatments are doxycycline or amoxicillin, and studies show that both are effective to fight the infection [18, 34].

These antibiotics are given to the dog for 14-30 days straight, but there are no guarantees.

Research shows that even a 30-day treatment does not always completely get rid of the bacteria, and relapses occur [35]. Post-Lyme disease syndrome is also possible where antibiotics stop working [36].

In certain cases, the treatment can produce a state where the bacteria remains in the dog, but there are no symptoms [35].

For this reason, it is still a good idea to have your dog’s urine tested for excess protein – a sign of kidney disease – on a regular basis after they have been treated for Lyme disease.

Generally, dogs respond well to antibiotic treatments. Arthritic dogs are often given pain killers such as Deramaxx alongside antibiotics.

Bottom Line: Antibiotics is the standard treatment of Lyme disease in dogs. Studies show it to be very effective. Total removal of the bacteria isn’t always possible, but the state of “no symptoms” is usually achieved.

How to Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs?

The best “treatment” for Lyme disease in dogs is to prevent it altogether [37, 38, 39].

As a dog owner, you should always be mindful and check your dog for ticks, especially after they have been in the woods or areas with tall grass.

Vaccinations can also be used, and many studies have shown that vaccinating dogs as protection against Lyme diseases works really well [22, 40, 41, 42, 4346, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52].

Dogs who have been previously infected can be re-infected.

Tick control

Tick control is key during the tick season [44, 45].

Checking your dog for ticks on a daily basis is the owner’s best tool against not only Lyme disease in dogs, but also many other infections that ticks can transmit to canines.

Avoiding areas that are known to be infested with ticks is a great way to prevent tick bites.

Ticks can be carried into yards or parks by other animals. Tick season is spring through early fall.

Ticks have to feed for at least 24-48 hours before they are able to transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease in dogs, so if you are checking your pet after times of risked exposure, you’ll likely find the ticks in time.

Vaccinations

Vaccines for Lymes Disease in DogsVaccinations for Lyme disease are available, and are highly effective [40-43, 46-52].

Be sure to do your research and talk to your vet prior to making any such decisions.

Two types of vaccines for Lyme disease in dogs exist that attack the bacteria and prevent transmission.

Vaccines are introduced through giving them twice at 2 to 3 week intervals. After that, annual vaccination is needed to maintain immunity.

Lyme disease vaccinations are a controversial topic because so few dogs actually develop symptoms and it is usually treated very easily.

Many vets have criticized vaccination of dogs for Lyme disease as being ineffective, which isn’t necessarily true but further research is needed to explore the contradictory results [53, 54, 55].

Studies do in fact show that vaccines are effective and mostly safe. And they’re even more effective when done on young puppies [56, 57].

Since vaccine’s effectiveness depends a lot on dogs themselves and their immune system, vaccination doesn’t guarantee 100% protection against Lyme disease in dogs. Many vaccinated dogs still contract the disease [54].

Some better known vaccines are:

  • Galaxy Lyme (Schering-Plough)
  • Recombitek Lyme (Merial)
  • ProLyme (Intervet)
  • Continuum Lyme (Intervet)
  • Lymevax (Fort Dodge)

Most vaccines should be relatively safe but some adverse effects associated with over-vaccination are possible [58].

In human trials, certain Lyme disease vaccines have shown side effects and were even pulled from the market [59].

Generally, vets agree that only dogs in endemic areas should be vaccinated.

Tick fighting products

You can also use over the counter products that help prevent parasites, such as insecticides.

Many flea control products include tick protection. Take a look at our article for evidence on which products work and which do not.

Most anti-tick and -flea products offer a topical solution that you apply to your dog just once a month.

However, you must always check your dog for ticks on a daily basis during tick season.

Environment

Treating the environment (yard and/or kennel) is also a key step in the prevention of Lyme disease in dogs.

To clean up the place, look for a product that contains fenvalerate, which has been proven to repel ticks and is safe to use in a dogs and humans environment [60, 61, 62].

Other environment control methods can help, such as keeping your lawn short and removing vegetation in your backyard.

Ensuring there are no small rodents in your backyard can also help since ticks less sources to feed on.

Bottom Line: Preventing tick bites is the best way to avoid Lyme disease. Tick control is the most effective method. Vaccinations are available and also work. Using flea and tick products is common, and so is controlling the environment.

Take Home Message

Lyme disease in dogs is common, with more dogs contracting it than humans.

The disease is transmitted through bites of deer ticks. Removing a tick before up to 24 hours after the attachment will most likely prevent dogs from being infected.

Lyme disease cannot be transmitted from pets to people, and studies show no evidence of increased cases of Lyme disease among pet owners.

Treatment of canine Lyme disease is effective and straightforward using antibiotics.

Preventing Lyme disease through tick and environment control is best. Vaccines are available; it’s an effective but controversial method.

Over the counter products such as collars, medicine and topical products also work.

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