How to Spot Lyme Disease Symptoms in Dogs

A tick-transmitted disease most prevalent in the Upper Midwest and North Atlantic and Pacific Coast states, Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that strikes young dogs more frequently than adults. One of the most common symptoms is recurring leg or joint paint, which can be mistaken for arthritis. While fairly easy to treat, Lyme disease can become deadly if undiagnosed. Some dogs test positive for Lyme disease without exhibiting clinical symptoms; some vets may advise against treatment in these instances.

Mature male vet examining old English sheepdog in surgery with man
A veternarian examines a dog in an exam room, next to the dog's owner.
credit: Dean Golja/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Transmission of Lyme Disease

A dog who contracts Lyme disease is bitten by an infected tick, with the tick left intact on the dog’s body for between 12 and 48 hours. Potential for Lyme disease can be reduced by keeping dogs out of tick-infested areas such as high brush and weedy regions and using pet-safe tick repellents and collars. Your vet may recommend a vaccination to protect against the disease. Regularly check your dog for ticks when he’s been outside. If you find any, remove the tick, keeping the head intact, and wash the area with an antibacterial agent.

Lyme Disease Symptoms

Clinical symptoms of Lyme disease may not appear for as long as five months after an infecting bite. Symptoms include inflamed joints and lameness, which can shift from one leg to another and may disappear and reappear over several days or weeks. Joints may be stiff, warm or inflamed and tender to the touch. Your dog might experience swollen lymph nodes near the site of the tick bite and may have a fever. Your pup may be lethargic, have trouble breathing, walk with a stiffly arched back, and in some cases, experience seizures.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your vet will conduct a complete physical exam as well as ask questions about your dog’s recent activity, location, symptoms and behaviors. He will look for the tick bite site and remove any residual part of the tick still in the wound. Blood and urine analysis and joint fluid testing will help confirm a diagnosis of Lyme disease. In most cases, your dog can be treated at home with antibiotics. In some cases, corticosteroids and anti-inflammatory drugs are prescribed for pain. Complications of Lyme disease involving other organ systems may require hospitalization.

Complications of Lyme Disease

Left untreated, Lyme disease can damage your dog’s kidneys and in rare instances, impact his nervous system or heart. Larger breed dogs are more prone to these complications. Symptoms of advanced kidney problems include vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss and swelling from fluid retention. In severe cases, your dog may have residual joint inflammation even after the disease has been treated successfully.