Are you wondering, “Can dogs get Lyme disease?” The answer is yes, definitely! If you’re worried that your dogs may have Lyme disease, know that this is one of the more common dog health problems in many areas of the United States and other countries around the world. Before you can make a diagnosis and research treatment, you’ll need to learn what Lyme disease symptoms look like. From the causes and symptoms of Lyme disease to preventing it, use the following information to care for your sick pup.
What is Lyme disease?
Before we discuss treatment for Lyme disease in dogs, let’s first reveal what the disease is in hopes that we can start preventing our dogs from getting it. Lyme disease, also known as Borreliosis, is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a corkscrew-shaped bacteria, called a spirochete. Another well-known spirochete is Trepenoma pallidum, which causes syphilis. The Borrelia spirochete is transmitted to dogs, humans, rodents, horses and other mammals by a deer tick (Ixodes species). A Lyme tick is the carrier for Lyme disease in Europe, Asia and the Southeast, Midwest, Northeast and Pacific regions of North America. Lyme disease acquired its name from Lyme, Connecticut where there was an outbreak of juvenile arthritis in 1975 that was eventually attributed to the tick-borne spirochete Borrelia burgdoferi. Since then the deer tick has infested dogs in Europe and Asia. If you live in areas where a deer tick can infect your dog, you’ll need to take precautions. There is an antibiotic for dogs but you should have your dog checked by a vet before you administer any treatment.
Where is Lyme disease most common?
In the U.S., more than 90% of Lyme disease cases are found where the deer tick is prevalent, in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota. If you live in these locations or are about to travel to areas where a deer tick can get to your dog, look out for the symptoms of Lyme disease, and treat it accordingly.
Deer ticks can be found in cool, moist environments. Common areas where a deer tick carrying Borrelia burgdorferi may live include tall grass around the edge of yards, wooded areas, woodpiles or roadsides. Since dogs can often easily access these locations, it is no wonder Lyme disease is a common dog illness. Deer ticks are active any time of the year when the temperature is above 40 degrees, and most active in the spring and summer. This is when people most often seek Lyme disease treatment for dogs.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs?
Once the deer tick is on your pooch, you may start to see the symptoms of Lyme disease. Lyme disease symptoms in dogs may look like sudden joint pain if your dog is showing signs like a change in gait, or other nervous system manifestations like paralysis, seizures, tremors, fever, confusion, abnormal movements, difficulty manipulating objects, fatigue, lethargy, obsessive compulsive behaviors, behavioral disruption like anger or bizarre responses, poor balance, Bell’s palsy and optic neuritis. Since there are many symptoms, it may make it difficult to diagnose and therefore treat Lyme disease.
Lyme disease causes many canine health issues. Common symptoms in dogs include an inflammatory reaction that can manifest in the joints, skin and nervous system. The most characteristic Lyme disease symptom in humans is the target shaped rash, called erythema migrans, but this has never been recorded in dogs with Lyme disease. According to Dr. Edward Breitschwerdt, head of veterinary medicine at the University of Virginia, “The major symptoms is a dog that’s lame for no obvious reason like trauma, degenerative joint disease or old age. Other common symptoms are if the dog has a fever, and enlarged lymph nodes.” He points out that dogs can be exposed long before any of these symptoms show up, “Because we know dogs can be infected with Borrelia in Lyme endemic areas and not develop clinical symptoms for two or three years, it’s important to get a travel history of the dog.” Having this bit of information is especially important for dogs who’ve visited or have lived in endemic areas like New York State, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and central to northern California, where deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis and Ixodes pacificus) carry Borrelia burgdorferi.
In dogs, acute or sub-acute joint pains are common early Lyme disease symptoms. In some breeds, mainly Labradors and Golden Retrievers, early symptoms of Lyme disease can manifest as a fatal kidney disease, with signs of generalized edema.
It is often difficult to spot the symptoms and know if treatment for Lyme disease is required. “In certain regions of the U.S., Borrelia is transmitted very commonly to dogs but the vast majority of dogs that become infected don’t develop signs. Textbooks estimate that about 10% of infected dogs develop signs, and very few of those dogs exhibit serious effects of infection like myocarditis (infection of the heart muscle). One of the problems for veterinarians in endemic areas is determining if a dog really has Lyme disease because many dogs walk in with antibodies from a vaccine or previous exposure, that show up on a PCR test as positive.”
Your dog may be displaying signs of other dog illnesses, so contact your vet for a diagnosis. If your vet confirms that ticks and Lyme disease have affected your dog, then he may prescribe an antibiotic.
What are the Lyme disease treatment options?
An antibiotic is usually used when treating Lyme disease in dogs. A four-week course of doxycycline, tetracycline, or Rifampin is the main treatment for Lyme disease. Symptoms usually subside after the antibiotic has been given; however, this is not always the case in instances of Lyme nephritis, a rare, but fatal kidney condition that occurs most commonly in Labradors and Golden Retrievers.
As Dr. Breitschwerdt points out, “Borrelia doesn’t spend a lot of time in the bloodstream so it’s hard to get an accurate lab result; it hides out in the subcutaneous tissues and then localizes in the joints. So even though the limping stops after a course of antibiotic treatment, the Borrelia is still there.” It’s important to note that even if you give an antibiotic, it may not treat the Lyme disease. The treatment for dogs doesn’t always work. He continues to explain that Lyme disease in dogs can stick around in the body, “This was shown to be the case in experimental studies where dogs were intentionally infected with Lyme disease, though the PCR tests came back negative, the fluid that was cultured from the infected joint came back positive. After the dogs were treated for the infection and all signs of Lyme disease resolved, they were later given immunosuppressive treatment and the infection was reactivated. This shows how the Borrelia can remain in the body in a metabolically inactive form until the dog is either exposed to a lot of stress or given immunosuppressive treatment (corticosteroids), which leads to the reactivation of the infection.” So, although you may give your dog an antibiotic, know that Lyme disease may return.
Therefore, using an antibiotic is not indicated in high exposure areas because many times those dogs that test positive may not have the symptoms or signs of Lyme disease, and those who are infected may not test positive. Dogs treated with an antibiotic continue to show high levels of active antibodies to Borrelia long after Lyme disease dog treatment has been administered, and signs have resolved, which can make it harder to discern if Lyme disease is the cause of current symptoms or not. With all these factors, you may want to verify that your dog does, in fact, have the illness before you give him treatment for Lyme disease.
How can I be sure that my dog has Lyme disease?
Verify with your vet that Lyme disease is in your dog’s prognosis before you give your dog an antibiotic or other medications. Lab testing of blood and urine for Lyme disease in dogs can be expensive and unreliable. In fact, when it comes to lab testing, it is sometimes a toss up, and is many times positive since it tests for antibodies against Lyme in dogs and the surface antigen OspA, which will show up positive if your dog has been immunized for Lyme disease. Another test for dogs and Lyme disease, called an ELISA test, can be inconclusive or show a false positive. A Western Blot is a confirmatory test for Lyme disease in your dog, but it can be cost prohibitive. In the end, the most accurate way to diagnose Lyme in dogs is a DNA positive test of the fluid around the infected joint.
The other reason that it is difficult to get a definitive lab result for Lyme disease in dogs is the occult nature of the Borrelia burgdorferi, which is a spirochete (spiral shaped bacteria) that hides inside the cell.
Diagnosing Lyme disease in dogs as the cause of canine health problems such as sudden acute or subacute arthritis is often a process of first ruling out other possible conditions like cellulitis, inflammatory joint disease, old age and trauma. Because intracellular bacteria cause canine Lyme disease, it is very important to have a blood test sent to a laboratory that can give more definitive results before administering an antibiotic. According to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) the top three general medical laboratories in the U.S. fail to detect 35% of Lyme antibodies. A negative blood test cannot guarantee that Borreliosis is not present, because the pathogen can hide within and between cells; thus if the results are equivocal and all other conditions have been ruled out, it’s best to assume these may be the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs and you should look into Lyme disease treatment.
If you still have some questions as to whether this is Lyme disease, there’s another test you can give your dog. The most definitive test for Lyme disease in dogs, according to Dr. Breitschwerdt, is called a SNAP test, from IX Laboratories. It utilizes an ELISA technique to detect Heart Worm Disease, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, phagocytophilum, and the C6 peptide of Borrelia (the latter three diseases are transmitted by a tick), with nearly 100% sensitivity and specificity. IgeneX and Medical Diagnostic Labs offer Western Blot testing to see if there is Lyme disease in your dog. If the vet runs this test and finds Lyme disease, she will most likely offer an antibiotic to help heal your dog.
Preventing Lyme Disease
Providing successful dog care means knowing how to prevent dog diseases before they strike. Rather than treat the Lyme disease in your dog, why not prevent your dog from getting the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria first? If you live in an area where Lyme disease is a common concern to pet health, a few standard preventive measures can drastically reduce your dog’s chance of infection. Plus, you won’t have to worry about giving your dog an antibiotic. It’s notable that though Lyme disease is commonly transmitted in these endemic areas of the U.S., only around 10% of dogs show signs. So, while it’s important to know the symptoms and treatment for Lyme disease, it’s best to try avoiding the illness before it strikes by following these preventive measures:
- Prevent your dog from playing in woodpiles or fallen logs, and walk in the center of trails to avoid the deer tick.
- Use a dog collar that is impregnated with Amitraz or Premethrin. But remember that Amitraz is toxic to horses, and, Premethrin is fatal to cats. Premethrin has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease in animal studies, and has been graded as a likely human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Vaccinate your dog for Lyme disease. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends two doses at 2-4 week intervals, and then annual boosters for those dogs living in areas where the deer tick is most prevalent. Puppies can be given their first shot at 9 or 12 weeks of age. If you have questions about whether your puppy can get the vaccine, ask your vet for more information.
- Thoroughly checking your dog, and yourself, for ticks immediately after each potential exposure is key to preventing Lyme disease. If a tick attaches for 48 hours or more, the Borrelia bacteria can be transmitted from the tick into the host’s bloodstream.
- Another option is to remove the deer tick with tweezers (instead of heat or alcohol) so you don’t agitate the tick and cause it to regurgitate the bacteria into the bloodstream before it’s been removed. Grasp the Lyme tick close to the skin where the feeding apparatus is to increase your chances of removing the infective parts. The immature deer ticks, called nymphs, are as small as poppy seeds and cause most Lyme infections. So you’ll need a magnifying glass and tweezers.
Can I get Lyme disease from my infected dog?
In addition to worrying about Lyme disease in dogs and treatment options, you may also be scared that you or other family members could get Lyme disease. Currently, there is no definitive evidence that Lyme disease can be transmitted from dogs to humans and vice versa. However, if your dog shows symptoms of Lyme disease or has been diagnosed with Lyme it would be prudent to test other household members too, since the deer tick transmits other infectious bugs like Bartonella (intracellular bacteria) and Babesia (a protozoa), which are readily transmitted to humans from dogs, cats, rodents and even fleas. In addition to talking with your vet about symptoms and treatment, you should consult your own doctor, too. Even if you’ve already administered an antibiotic or other treatment for your dogs, you could still be at risk. If you’re worried that you have dogs with Lyme disease, contact your doctor to get tested.
Is there a Lyme disease cure?
In addition to knowing the symptoms and treatment for Lyme disease, you may be wondering if there is a cure. Recently, there has been evidence that Lyme disease can become a chronic progressive disease in humans. In experiential settings dogs that were infected with Borrelia were found to still carry the spirochete even after all symptoms of Lyme disease were resolved and an antibiotic was administered. Though the signs and symptoms, like limping and lethargy usually resolve after a course of antibiotic treatment, there is clinical evidence that once infected with Borrelia the infection can be reactivated after exposure to high levels of stress or immune suppressive treatment (corticosteroids). So, in this sense an antibiotic does not eradicate Borrelia, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, even though it does resolve the symptoms.
Now you know how to treat Lyme disease if your dogs get infected. If you’re worried about Lyme disease in your dogs, take your pups in to get tested. This dog illness can seriously affect your pooch so it’s best to act immediately and see if you can get an antibiotic for your dogs and help your furry friends recover.