Lyme Disease in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatments and Prevention

It’s that time of year again where the weather’s warming up and all the critters are starting to frolic again. Unfortunately, ticks are among them, and these little buggers present a health threat not only to humans but to animals as well, particularly dogs.

Ticks can be found in most states, but the Northeast, Midwest, and West have the worst tick problems in the U.S. While ticks in general carry disease, the only species to carry Lyme disease is the lxodes scapularis, more commonly known as the black-legged tick or deer tick. As you can probably guess, deer can carry deer ticks, but these little bloodsuckers will latch onto pretty much any living, breathing creature to feed on or use as transportation to another host. Unless you live in a largely urban area, you are likely to have ticks in your backyard, even more so if you live in the country, where the wildlife population is substantially higher.

The symptoms of canine Lyme disease differ slightly from the symptoms humans display. When a person contracts this disease, they may develop a rash, along with flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches, fatigue, chills, nausea, and stiff joints. A dog will typically experience lameness in its limbs, appetite loss, and fever. However, only about 5 percent to 10 percent of dogs that get infected will become symptomatic (the rest have antibodies to fight the disease off), and the symptoms might not manifest for two to six months after infection.

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Symptoms will begin suddenly. If you notice your dog seemed normal one day and then couldn’t walk or stand the next, take them to the vet as soon as possible, as sudden-onset lameness is a common symptom of canine Lyme disease. While the disease itself isn’t fatal, if left untreated for too long, complications from Lyme disease can kill your dog or cause permanent damage. In other words, you don’t need to rush your dog in for emergency treatment at 2 a.m. (which often costs at least a few hundred dollars just to walk through the door), but definitely schedule a visit for your vet’s next available appointment if you notice your dog presenting with any of the aforesaid signs.

Treatment for canine Lyme disease is a long round of antibiotics. Doxycycline, the preferred antibiotic of choice, usually is administered for no less than one month. Much like with human antibiotics, the entire prescription must be taken until it’s gone, even if your dog begins showing signs of improvement (dogs will usually feel better within a few days of starting on medication). Your vet might suggest the Lyme disease vaccine after your pup has completed treatment and comes in for the follow-up appointment. Vaccination is always a good idea for pets, but bear in mind that the Lyme disease vaccine has a failure rate of about 20 percent to 30 percent, so it’s entirely possible for your dog to get Lyme disease again even after vaccination.

Here are some tips to keep your dogs tick-free this Spring and Summer.

Check your dogs for ticks once a day. Just give them a good, thorough pat-down and run your fingers through their fur. Ticks like to attach themselves to the head and back of the neck, but be sure to check everywhere because ticks will latch on wherever they can, including the face, inside the ears, under the tail, and on the paws.

Check any other pets you have for ticks, and be sure any human inhabitants check themselves as well. A tick will feel like a small raised bump on the skin and might look sort of like a seed when engorged (they can be black, brown, or tan). It only takes 24 to 48 hours for a tick to transmit disease to its host, so it’s important to find and remove ticks before they feed for too long.

Use preventive treatment such as Advantage or Frontline. If you want to, you can also speak to your vet about vaccinating your dog for Lyme disease prior to infection.

If possible, try not to walk your dog in areas with a lot of brush. Ticks love hiding out in bushy or grassy areas, and your dog could easily bring home a tick or four after a roll in the weeds.

If you keep a bird feeder or bird bath in your backyard, don’t walk your dog too close to it. Birds can carry ticks, and there may be a higher concentration of them around spots where birds congregate.

Check yourself for ticks anytime you go outside. Even if you don’t get bitten yourself, you could bring one in on your pant leg, and your dog or anyone else in your home might become the unfortunate host for your unwanted parasitic guest.

If you do find a tick on your dog, grasp it as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers and pull it off gently and in a straight, upward motion. Try not to pinch your dog’s skin, though. The reason the tick must be removed this way is because the contents of the tick’s body can be pushed into the dog’s bloodstream if the tick is squeezed around the middle (essentially causing the tick to vomit the contents of its body). This expulsion of the tick’s insides can be enough to cause Lyme disease in the dog. This method of removal is also what should be used if you find a tick on yourself.

After removing a tick from your dog, apply some rubbing alcohol to the spot where the tick was attached. Also, rinse the tweezers you used with alcohol and wash your hands thoroughly. For good measure, give your dog a treat afterward too.

Even if your dog isn’t vaccinated or treated preventively, the odds of them contracting Lyme disease and becoming symptomatic are still quite low. In the event of infection, treatment is long but relatively simple. Still, prevention is the best option to save your dog from being miserable, and to save your wallet from expensive veterinary treatment after infection has set in.

Kevin Bentley

Hi, I’m Kevin Bentley, a dog lover and enthusiast. Though I started out as a cat person, my wife quickly set me on the true path of dog love. Now I’m full-on obsessed with dogs and everything related to dogs. I’ve purchased every dog accessory you can think of, so I decided to collect my thoughts about them on this site.

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