Although they are tiny, ticks are a huge concern for dogs and their people. Certain species of these eight-legged ectoparasites of the arachnid class are responsible for several serious diseases, including Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, in humans, dogs, and other animals.
A bacterial illness caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease is carried by black-legged ticks. An infected tick must feed for at least 24 hours to enable transmission of the bacteria into the victim's bloodstream, which then travels to different parts of the body, infecting specific organs or joints. Occurring more frequently in younger dogs than adults, Lyme disease may present as arthritis, with dogs exhibiting pain in their legs and joints.
Early diagnosis of Lyme disease is imperative for a good prognosis — if left undiagnosed, it can be fatal.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
- Loss of appetite
- Reduced energy
- Difficulty breathing
- Intermittent lameness due to inflammation of the joints
- Stiff gait with obvious discomfort and pain
- Swollen joints
If a dog showing any of these signs of illness is not promptly taken to the vet and diagnosed, it can lead to potentially fatal kidney failure or, rarely, neurological and cardiac damage.
Diagnosing Lyme disease in dogs.
Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination for symptoms of Lyme disease and look for any engorged ticks that may be attached and remove them. They will also review your dog's medical history, ask you when she was bitten, and the signs of illness you have observed since the onset.
Blood is drawn for a complete profile. If the tick bite was quite recent, the level of antibodies for Lyme might not be present at this early stage in the test results. Conversely, if a dog has been infected with Lyme for a long time, there may not be enough antibodies left to test positive, resulting in a false-negative result for dogs who do have the disease.
A specific DNA test called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is also performed in the diagnosis of Lyme disease. This test confirms the presence of the disease-causing bacterium, but like the blood test, it can result in a false negative when it shows up in an infected joint but is not present in the blood cells.
How are dogs with Lyme disease treated?
Lyme disease is routinely treated with a course of antibiotics over several weeks to resolve the clinical signs of the illness. However, in prolonged infection, other medications or therapies may be needed to relieve specific symptoms.
Can humans get Lyme disease from dogs?
The only way you can get Lyme disease from your dog is if an infected tick is transported into your home in your dog's fur and crawls onto you and bites. Lyme disease is not directly transmissible from dogs to humans or other pets.
How to identify the ticks that cause Lyme disease.
Ticks are about the size of a sesame seed. They don't jump or fly but crawl. They hang around on the tips of grass and vegetation waiting to grab onto a host for a meal. After feeding, they become engorged and significantly larger. It's important to be able to identify a tick on your dog or yourself, and either learn the correct way to remove it or take your dog to the vet to have it removed. If in doubt about what to look for, the creepy magnified photos of the different species of ticks abound on the internet, and many veterinary offices hand out tick I.D. cards with pictures of a tick before and after feeding.
How to prevent your dog from contracting Lyme disease.
Keeping your property as tick-free as possible by eliminating their preferred habitat is one way you can prevent your dog from contracting a tick-borne disease. Thin out dense foliage and bushes, trim your grass short, and remove leaf litter, debris, garbage, and woodpiles. Exclude wildlife such as deer with fencing. Don't allow your dog to freely roam if you're in a region known to be tick-friendly.
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Many dogs have a propensity for nosing around in the dense brush, especially scent hounds. When hiking or camping, you can keep a close watch on your dog and decide where he goes if he's on a leash. Consider a 30-foot-long, retractable leash that allows him the freedom to explore while you control where he goes, reining him in if he gets into areas where ticks could be lurking.
In the United States, the areas of highest Lyme disease occurrence are the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, the Atlantic seaboard, and the Pacific coast. Protect your dog during the tick season with an EPA-approved tick control product available at your vets, such as Frontline®, Sentinel®, Advantix®, or Seresto ™. These affordable safeguards give you peace of mind knowing your dog will not get Lyme or other tick-borne diseases.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.