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Lyme Disease in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatment

tick on finger with dog in background

Did you know that your dog is just as susceptible to Lyme disease as you are — if not more? You may not always be able to prevent tick-borne diseases, but knowing the signs of Lyme disease in dogs can help get your pet quicker treatment. 

If you live in a wooded area, enjoy taking hikes with your dog, or reside in certain high-risk areas, it’s especially vital to familiarize yourself with this potentially fatal canine health concern.

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by the bite of a tick infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Primarily, Lyme disease transmission happens after a bite from a blacklegged tick (like the deer tick). Because these ticks are often very tiny, it can make removing them from your dog before they’ve had a chance to bite challenging. 

Lyme disease isn’t transmitted instantaneously, though. Once a blacklegged tick bite has occurred, it takes at least 24 hours for the bacterium to be passed from the infected tick to your dog. Research has shown that most dogs become infected between the 36 and 48-hour mark, so the quicker you can find and remove the tick, the less likely it is that your dog will develop Lyme disease.

Where you live also contributes to the risk of Lyme disease in dogs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of Lyme disease have been seen all across the United States. However, they are most common in the Northeastern, Northwestern, and Upper Midwestern states.

It’s important to note that even though humans and dogs can contract Lyme disease, you can’t give it to your dog (or vice versa). However, the same ticks that infect your dog can infect you, making prevention key for your dog’s health and your own.

What Are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs?

Every dog is unique, so Lyme disease symptoms in one dog may look different from those in another. There are also several forms of Lyme Disease, which also impact the related symptoms. 

Complicating things further is the fact that many dogs who have contracted Lyme Disease don’t show any outward symptoms. Only between five and 10 percent of infected animals will develop clinical signs, and those symptoms may mimic other diseases so closely that they may never be diagnosed.

While many of the common symptoms in dogs are similar to those experienced by people with the disease, dogs do not develop the characteristic bulls-eye rash so often associated with Lyme disease. 

Lameness and Swollen Joints

Two common signs of Lyme disease in dogs are intermittent lameness and swollen joints. 

This lameness often shifts from leg to leg with no apparent cause or trigger — some people describe these dogs as looking like they’re walking on eggshells, and symptoms may randomly come and go. However, on closer inspection, it frequently correlates with swollen joints in the same affected leg. Those joints are usually also warm and tender to the touch. 

Why does this happen?

It comes down to what happens to the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium enters the dog’s bloodstream. Although it travels throughout the body, it tends to localize inside the joints and the kidneys. The more B. burgdorferi present, the higher the likelihood your dog will experience joint pain and swelling. 

Slowed Eating Habits

Another symptom of Lyme disease in dogs is a noticeable loss of appetite (also known as anorexia). If you have a dog who is usually a voracious eater who suddenly starts turning their nose up at dinner, it should be a red flag for you to schedule a prompt appointment with your veterinarian. 

Lyme disease doesn’t directly cause a lack of appetite on its own, but many of the side effects of the disease can — especially kidney disease or pain. Anorexia is also a sign of chronic or untreated illness, as it doesn’t usually show up in the early stages of the disease.

Over time, this change in eating habits can also lead to noticeable weight loss, which you should always take seriously. 

Fever and Low Energy

Two final symptoms that may indicate your dog has developing Lyme disease are fever and low energy. A dog’s normal body temperature is naturally higher than a human’s, usually between 101 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, so don’t rely on touch alone to check for fever. 

The most accurate way to evaluate your dog’s temperature is to use a rectal thermometer. Anything over 103 degrees Fahrenheit is considered a fever, and dogs with Lyme disease have the potential to develop very high fevers if left untreated.

The higher the fever, the more likely your dog will also show signs of lethargy, a lower-than-usual energy level. However, Lyme disease-related lethargy doesn’t always have to be accompanied by a fever to be significant. Lethargy may also be related to untreated pain or as the result of a loss of appetite.

As a reminder, never give your dog over-the-counter fever reducers like ibuprofen or Tylenol, as these can be deadly.

How Is Lyme Disease Treated in Dogs?

If you suspect that your dog may have contracted Lyme disease, the first step to treat Lyme disease is to get them evaluated by your veterinarian. They will likely use a combination of physical evaluation to look for the clinical signs of Lyme disease in dogs and potential lab testing to come to a final diagnosis. 

Lab testing can take various forms, depending on the severity of symptoms and where those symptoms are located. For example, antibody blood tests may be performed in the office, although there are drawbacks (like false negatives or false positives). 

Other tests, like the C6 test, can tell your veterinarian if there are enough antibodies in the blood to warrant treatment. Your veterinarian may also want to perform a general health panel and urinalysis to monitor your dog’s organ function, especially if they suspect your dog has a chronic Lyme disease infection.

Treatment is often lengthy and multi-faceted if your dog receives a Lyme disease diagnosis. The first step of treatment is antibiotics, most frequently doxycycline. Although there are some potential side effects, like diarrhea or vomiting, it is preferred over other antibiotics because it can treat any other tick-borne diseases that may be present. 

Giving doxycycline with food can minimize these side effects, as antibiotic treatment often lasts for four weeks or more. In addition to antibiotics, many dogs with Lyme disease will also require symptomatic treatment. Gabapentin for neuropathic (nerve) pain and fluid replacement for dogs who become dehydrated or develop high fevers is common. 

How Can You Prevent Your Dog From Getting Lyme?

You may be familiar with the prevention techniques for the more common canine diseases — distemper, parvo, rabies, etc. But did you know that you can also help prevent your dog from developing Lyme disease?

Preventing Lyme disease in dogs is a crucial part of being a pet owner, especially if you live in the Northeast, Northwest, or Upper Midwest. It starts by knowing where you’re most likely to encounter ticks that carry Lyme disease. 

Commonly, ticks crawl to the top of leaves or tall grasses, where they wait for a potential host to walk by. Keeping your pet on a leash in these areas can help reduce the risk.

Along with your dog’s other vaccines, talk to your veterinarian about vaccination against Lyme disease, which helps your dog develop protective antibodies against Borrelia burgdorferi. While Lyme vaccination significantly increases the odds that your dog will be able to fend off infection, it’s not 100 percent. 

Some dogs still develop Lyme disease despite vaccination, so your veterinarian may want to re-vaccinate or recheck their antibody levels to ensure it remains effective. Tick avoidance is also essential for dog owners. 

Keep your pet up-to-date with their tick prevention medications, check your dog for ticks regularly (especially after returning from a hike or spending time in a wooded area), and remove any ticks that you may find safely and promptly. If your pet gets easily stressed out by being touched or groomed, use a calming supplement to ensure you can thoroughly check them.

Remember, don’t twist or yank during tick removal. Instead, grasp the tick firmly as close to the dog’s skin as possible and pull it straight out so that none of its head remains behind. Wear gloves, especially if you have any open cuts or wounds on your hands. 

While treatment is available for Lyme disease in dogs, preventing your dog from developing the disease is vital. Even with treatment, Lyme disease can lead to significant kidney complications, including acute or chronic kidney failure, which is often fatal.  

The Bottom Line

Lyme disease in dogs is just as prevalent as in humans, although it is less likely to be diagnosed. While you can’t depend on recognizing the same characteristic signs that you would see in a person infected with the disease (like a bulls-eye rash), knowing what to look for can help you keep your pet safe from this tiny menace. 

Sources:

Lyme Disease Map | CDC 

Lyme Borreliosis in Animals – Generalized Conditions | Merck Veterinary Manual 

Lyme Disease | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine 

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