Lyme Disease in Dogs: What to Know

Lyme disease is an infection caused by bacteria and transmitted through tick bites. To learn about the symptoms, causes, treatments, and prevention of Lyme disease in dogs, read on.

Jun 25, 2024bySara Payne

lyme disease in dogs what to know

Lyme was just a small coastal town in Connecticut until an unusual cluster of pediatric arthritis cases occurred in 1975. These cases led to the discovery of Borrelia burgdorferi, better known as Lyme disease. There are thousands of Lyme disease cases in humans and dogs each year. It’s estimated that between 1.4 percent and 13.3 percent of dogs in the U.S. test positive for this condition annually.

If your dog is bitten by a tick, they could develop this potentially fatal disease. Here’s what to know.

What Is Lyme Disease?

dog in tall grass
Image credit: Pixabay

Borrelia burgdorferi is a spirochete bacterium (a group of spiral-shaped bacteria) that travels into the bloodstream of animals via certain species of tick. The disease often infects the joints and kidneys, but it can also cause neurological issues.

According to the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, only five to 10 percent of infected dogs develop symptoms of Lyme disease, but these can be severe. Signs of Lyme disease can include:

  • Lameness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Joint swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Decreased activity
  • Kidney complications (such as blood in urine)

When a human has Lyme disease, they’ll develop a bullseye-like rash where the tick bit them. This symptom does not manifest in dogs. It can take between two to five months before a dog may show signs of the disease.

Certain Ticks Carry Lyme Disease

tick on white surface
Image credit: Pixabay

Lyme disease is not a common health condition in dogs, but it’s not rare, either. Black-legged ticks carry this illness. As soon as they hatch, they need a blood meal to survive. These eight-legged arachnids feed on a wide variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Ticks hang onto tall grass or weeds and wait for an animal to pass. As soon as one does, the tick jumps and attaches itself to the animal. It secretes a small amount of anesthetic in its saliva, so the animal doesn’t feel it bite. Then, the tick inserts a feeding tube to remain firmly in place as it drinks blood. A tick will feed for several days until it becomes engorged and falls off.

Lyme Disease Is Treatable

microscopic tick
Image credit: Pixabay

Lyme disease can be a tricky illness to diagnose, as it often mimics other bloodborne diseases caused by ticks. Blood tests can measure your dog’s antibodies against the Borrelia bacteria; however, this does not mean that your dog is currently suffering from Lyme. These tests only measure whether your dog has been exposed to the bacteria.

Vets consider the dog’s history of tick exposure, the signs they’re exhibiting, and the lab results to diagnose Lyme disease. Then, your dog will take a 30-day course of antibiotics. Some dogs may need a longer course. Dogs that have antibodies for Borrelia but do not have symptoms do not usually get treated by antibiotics.

If symptoms progress to Lyme nephritis, or an inflammation of the kidneys, then additional therapies may be needed to treat your dog. Severe cases may lead to impaired kidney function, so if you suspect Lyme disease, you should consult a veterinarian immediately.

You Can Prevent Lyme Disease in Your Pet

engorged tick
Image credit: Pixabay

The best way to prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease is to prevent ticks from getting on your dog. If you live in a location where Lyme disease is prevalent (such as the American Northeast), you can get your dog vaccinated. If your dog hasn’t been vaccinated, ask your vet questions about your options and what measures could keep your pet safe.

Aside from vaccinations, you can prevent Lyme disease by:

  • Being aware of your surroundings. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), ticks are prevalent all year long in certain areas of the U.S., such as in Washington State and Florida. If you live in one of these areas, talk to your vet about using a topical application to prevent fleas and ticks.
  • Knowing where ticks live. Ticks like tall grasses, marshes, and wooded areas––especially near bodies of water. After taking your dog on a hike, be sure to check them for ticks, especially spring through fall (the high-risk season).

How to Perform a Tick Check

tick on leaf
Image credit: Pixabay

You should routinely check your dogs for ticks if they spend a lot of time outdoors. These parasites routinely latch:

  • Around the tail
  • In and around the ears
  • Around the eyelids
  • Under your dog’s collar
  • Under the front legs
  • Between the back legs
  • Between the toes

To perform a tick check, gently run your fingers through your pet’s fur, feeling and looking for any small bumps. A tick is a small, black, or brown arachnid. In some cases, they can be as small as the head of a pin.

Tick engorged with thumb
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you need to remove a tick from your pet, grab gloves, tweezers, and isopropyl alcohol. With the tweezers, gently grasp the tick as close to your dog’s skin as possible. Then, slowly pull it in a straight motion. If you jerk the tick out, it can leave parts of it behind that may lead to an infection. After you have removed the tick, drop it into the rubbing alcohol in a sealable container.

Label and date the container in case you need to show the tick to a vet if your dog develops symptoms. Next, disinfect the dog’s wound and the tweezers. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Don’t forget—ticks bite people, too!

Lyme Disease Requires Medical Attention

white dog tall grass
Image credit: Pixabay

In summary, Lyme disease is the result of a bloodborne pathogen. Black-legged ticks carry the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and pass it on to their hosts. If your dog gets Lyme disease, they may or may not show symptoms. But if symptoms do manifest, they can appear months after a tick bite. Be sure to take your dog to the vet if they are exhibiting symptoms of Lyme disease. This is a serious condition that can prove detrimental if not treated.

Sara Payne
bySara Payne

Sara is a mother of two and a high school English teacher who rediscovered her love of writing during the pandemic. She has 5 rescue cats: Neville and Luna, who are white cats with black and grey spots, and Ginny, Blue, and Fairy, who are calicos. Besides taking care of humans and fur babies, Sara enjoys gardening, crafting, and spending time in nature.