Lyme Disease and Your Dog

Lyme disease is the most common tick borne disease in the United States in dogs.  It was first discovered in humans in an area of Connecticut called Old Lyme in 1975.  It is caused by a spirochete (bacteria) species of the Borrelia burgdorferi group.  Most cases are found in wooded areas in the Northern part of the United States, but they can occur anywhere.  Lyme disease is most often spread during tick season, with a peak in July.  However, ticks can be active anytime the temperature is above 32 degrees, so winter cases do occur.  The tick most responsible for Lyme’s disease is the hard shelled deer tick.  It must be attached at least eighteen hours to transmit the disease to your dog.

The most common symptom of Lyme’s disease in dogs is lameness.  One or more joints become swollen and painful.  The dog may run a fever, be lethargic, stop eating, and lose weight.  Usually the lameness lasts only a few days, but in a few dogs it becomes chronic.

Kidney problems are the next most common symptom.  Rarely, acute cardiac symptoms occur.  These symptoms are usually fatal when they occur.  Lyme disease is known to attack other organs in the body such as the spleen or liver, as well.

Most dogs who are exposed to Lyme’s disease do not get sick.  Tests can be performed to see if your dog has been exposed to Lyme’s disease and needs treatment.  In those who do, many dogs experience what is called shifting lameness.  One limb goes lame, then gets better in a few days.  In a week or month, another limb goes lame, then gets better.  This continues over time until it becomes chronic.

The main treatment for your dog is a course of antibiotics.  Generally, the dog is given antibiotics for four weeks to kill the bacteria that cause Lyme’s disease.  Unfortunately, some dogs have chronic problems even after the bacteria is killed.  It is very important to give your dog all of his antibiotic to help prevent the disease from becoming chronic.  In addition, it will be necessary to limit your dog’s activity while he is getting well.

Because of the seriousness of the disease, and the risk of it becoming chronic, prevention of this disease is important.  Ideally, you would prevent your dog from running in heavily wooded areas where ticks are present.  If this is not practical, daily grooming and removal of the ticks is necessary.  In addition, there are now many products that kill ticks before they are able to transmit the disease.  Some of these are topical, such as Frontline®, while some of them are taken internally.  These products are typically only available from your veterinarian.

There is also a vaccine for Lyme’s disease.  This should only be given to your dog upon the advice of your veterinarian, because there have been negative side effects reported because of the vaccine.