Lyme disease is a serious tick-borne illness that humans are rightfully wary of. But it can also occur in dogs, which means owners must be on guard. Thankfully, while formidable, Lyme disease is both preventable and treatable.
Below, we’ll discuss the basics of canine Lyme disease, explain how it is transmitted, outline the symptoms it causes, and share ways to prevent and treat this doggo disease.
Lyme Disease in Dogs: Key Takeaways
- Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can afflict dogs and humans. The disease is transmitted to people and pets via the bites of black-legged ticks who’re carrying the bacteria.
- While the illness can be serious, Lyme disease is treatable with antibiotics. However, as with most other pet health concerns, it’s usually easier to prevent the disease than to treat it.
- Lyme disease primarily occurs in the northeastern United States but does pop up in the Midwest or Pacific occasionally. All pet owners should be careful about ticks, but those living in these areas must be particularly diligent.
What Is Lyme Disease and How Do Dogs Get It?
Lyme disease is an illness caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. You may sometimes see this organism referred to as a spirochete, but that is just a technical name for spirally twisted bacteria.
Spread by tick bites, the disease travels through the bloodstream and wreaks havoc throughout the body, especially the victim’s joints and internal organs.
Borrelia burgdorferi is found in black-legged ticks, or “deer ticks” as they’re more commonly called. These arachnids are most often found in the northeastern United States, though small pockets of Lyme disease outbreaks do occur in the Midwest, Southeast, and West Coast each year.
What Are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs?
Lyme disease is a tricky illness to diagnose, as infected dogs (and humans!) don’t always show signs right away. Symptoms may also start and stop, only to recur later in a flare-up.
Symptoms of Lyme disease can include:
- Swollen joints
- Lack of appetite
- Stiff movement
- Swollen glands
- Kidney issues
If you notice any of these in your pup, contact your vet for an appointment. This is especially important if you live in a Lyme disease hotspot like the Northeast.
How Is Lyme Disease Diagnosed in Dogs?
Lyme disease is diagnosed via a preliminary blood test in which your veterinarian looks for Borrelia burgdorferi antibodies. Their presence signals an active or prior infection. A follow-up test will help determine if the infection is current and treatment is warranted.
However, unfortunately, tests don’t always detect recent infections, thereby requiring a retest later to rule out a false negative result. In fact, your vet may order a repeat test if Lyme disease is suspected.
If your dog tests positive for Lyme disease, your vet will start a treatment plan and check your pet’s kidney function through blood and urine tests. This is just to make sure your pup is in tip-top shape, so don’t panic.
What Treatments Are Available for Lyme Disease in Dogs?
Since Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, dogs who contract the illness are treated with canine antibiotics.
Typically, doxycycline is the most common medication choice, though your vet may prescribe another antibiotic in some cases. You’ll likely be able to obtain doxycycline from your vet, but once you have the prescription, you may save a bit of cash by shopping at one of the best online pet pharmacies.
These antibiotics come in pill form, so they are usually pretty easy to give to your pup. Just put the pill in some canned food or cheese, or use any of the other common hacks to get your dog to take his medicine to get the meds down the hatch. Repeat treatment may be needed if the infection doesn’t clear.
It’s important to note that antibiotic treatment doesn’t prevent future infection — your doggo could contract the disease again in the future. This means that tick prevention remains as important as ever, even if your dog has already contracted Lyme disease.
Where and When Are Dogs at Risk of Lyme Disease?
Ticks and wooded areas go hand-in-hand, but you can also find these creepy crawlies in grassy fields and, unfortunately, your backyard.
Your dog doesn’t need to romp around outside for long to pick up an unwanted bloodsucker, either. Ticks spend a lot of their time clinging to vegetation, just waiting for a potential food source to stroll by. And this means your dog may even pick up one of these hitchhiking bloodsuckers during a quick potty break.
The East Coast sees the highest prevalence of Lyme disease from northern Virginia to Maine, concentrated particularly around Connecticut (Lyme, Connecticut is where the illness got its name), Massachusetts, southeastern New York, and New Jersey.
Outbreaks are occasionally seen elsewhere in the U.S., with pockets occurring in Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, Illinois, and more.
Dogs living in the Northeast are at a much higher risk than elsewhere, but all dogs should have some form of tick preventative, as there are many other tick-borne illnesses out there.
Most people think of ticks as a “summer only” threat, and while yes, ticks are more common in the warmer months, they’re still a year-round threat that require you to be on alert. This is especially true for dogs and owners living in the South or on the West Coast.
Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs: An Ounce of Prevention…
Lyme disease may be an icky foe, but there are ways to prevent dogs from getting ticks that carry the dangerous bacteria, including:
- Tick collars: Containing plant-based oils or chemicals that repel creepy crawlies, dog tick collars are accessories that are worn to provide continuous protection against ticks, and in some instances, fleas and mosquitoes too. A tick collar can be removed when your pup comes inside if you aren’t keen on insecticides around the house and typically offer at least a few months’ protection against ticks. Common tick collars include Seresto, Preventic, and Sobaken.
- Topical tick prevention medications: These bug-busting solutions are applied right to your dog’s skin (usually between the shoulder blades) and contain insecticides or plant-based oils that generally provide protection for up to 30 days. Swimming or grooming too soon after application can affect coverage, so always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines closely. The most common tick topicals are Frontline Plus, K9 Advantix, and PetArmor Plus.
- Oral tick prevention medications: Offered in tablets or chewables, these tick banishers are one of the most common forms of tick preventative and may protect your pooch against fleas, heartworms, and other parasites too. Usually given once a month, they provide continuous coverage as long as you stick to the manufacturer’s schedule and don’t wane in efficacy like topicals if your pup is caught in the rain right away. Common oral tick preventatives include NexGard, Simparica, and Credelio (note that all three of these require a prescription).
- Vaccination: Given annually, this injection can prevent Lyme disease in pooches. Often recommended for dogs living in high-risk infection areas like the Northeast, this dog vaccine should be paired with another preventative for complete protection against breakthrough infection.
As with any intervention, check with your vet first to make sure you pick the best preventive for your dog and area. Some breeds, such as collies and other herding pups, are sensitive to flea and tick products, making your vet’s approval all the more important.
You should also mention if you live in a multispecies household, as some topicals and tick collars can be harmful to cats.
A Few Other Tick-Transmitted Diseases Your Dog Can Catch
Unfortunately, Lyme disease isn’t the only tick-borne dog illness out there. Those living far from the Lyme disease hotbed of the Northeast still have plenty of tick-transmitted infections to watch for, including:
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- American Tick Bite Fever
Combating tick-borne illness requires a robust offense of preventatives, which is why every dog should have at least some form of protection. Remember: It’s much cheaper and safer to prevent problems than to treat them.
Additional Tick Safety Tips
Kicking ticks to the curb is easier if you follow a few easy steps, such as:
- Avoid grassy or wooded areas with your pup during warmer weather.
- Stick to pathed paths and sidewalks during walks.
- Treat your yard with pet-safe tick repellants seasonally.
- Mow your lawn before it gets too long.
- Check your dog for ticks often (daily if you live in at-risk areas!)
- Don’t forget to examine hard-to-see areas like between your pup’s toes, in his ears, and under his tail.
Can Dogs Spread Lyme Disease to People?
No, your dog won’t give you Lyme disease. Fortunately, it is only spread via tick bites.
That said, the tick that infected your dog can easily fall off and later bite you, causing infection. This is why frequently checking your pup for ticks is so important, and if you live in high-risk areas, you might want to skip sharing a bed with your four-footer, if possible.
Lyme disease in dogs is nothing to mess around with, but luckily there are several ways to prevent infection and treatments if your pup does fall ill with it.
Has your canine had a bout of Lyme disease? Do you have any tick prevention tips for other dog owners? Share with us in the comments!