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lyme disease in dogs

Lyme Disease in Dogs: Symptoms & Treatment

Lyme disease in dogs is caused by Ixodes scapularis
Tick species Ixodes scapularis carries the Lyme disease bacteria – Photo by Scott Bauer

Lyme disease in dogs was first discovered in 1984. It is a disease caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. Ticks transmit these bacteria when they feed. The primary vector is the tick species Ixodes. Lyme disease can affect many animals, including dogs and humans.

The number of tick-related infections is increasing each year. A warming climate and the migration of people is helping spread ticks and the diseases they carry. As many as 1 in 200 ticks in the UK were found to carry B. burgdorferi 1.

Lyme disease can spread quickly and quietly in dog populations. In one area of New York, 76% of dogs had antibodies to B. burgdorferi 2. This suggests up to 3/4 of the dogs tested had been exposed to Lyme disease. However, only 5% of dogs developed symptoms of infection 3.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Only a small percentage of infected dogs develop symptoms. Although flu-like symptoms and rashes develop quickly in humans, this is not true for dogs. Symptoms can be difficult to spot and can take weeks or months to develop. Some of the symptoms associated with Lyme disease in dogs are listed below:

  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Anorexia
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Arthritis
  • Lameness
  • Kidney damage (rare)

One study looked at infection in puppies and found they developed several episodes of lameness. These episodes occurred in the same or different leg, a few weeks apart 4. Chronic infection with B. burgdorferi could also contribute to degenerative joint disease.

Treatment Options

Antibiotic Therapy

A one month course of antibiotics is recommended. The antibiotic doxycycline is commonly prescribed. Doxycycline has the benefit of treating other infections that may be present at the same time. It is also cheap and has anti-inflammatory properties. Longer treatment is recommended as the infection is usually widespread by the time symptoms show. However, some evidence suggests long term antibiotic therapy has no benefit over short term therapy 5.

Even with antibiotic courses lasting longer than a month, B. burgdorferi can still remain in bodily tissues. Success of treatment can vary and even a year after treatment, a positive result can still be given in screening tests 6.

If kidney damage occurs as a result of Lyme disease, further treatment may be needed. This can include a number of kidney supporting drugs as well as fluid and diet therapy.

Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs

Vaccination

Various vaccines are available for Lyme disease, however their efficacy is widely debated. Most experts do not recommend the vaccine, but your veterinarian will be able to help you make this decision. Whether your dog is suitable for the vaccine may depend on how common Lyme disease is in your area. Some dogs may even be predisposed to immune disease trigger by Lyme antigens, making the vaccine unsuitable.

The vaccine is sometimes recommended as treatment alongside antibiotics. There is little evidence to show whether or not this supports recovery.

Good tick control and early treatment is a better alternative to vaccination in this case. Owners of vaccinated dogs should still be tick-aware.

Tick Control and Removal

Using a tick removal tool to remove a tick from a dog
Using a tick removal tool to remove a tick from a dog

Tick control is important to reduce the risk of Lyme disease. Ticks can also carry many other diseases. Minimising the risk from ticks and quick removal is important for both you and your pet. If a tick is removed within 24 hours of attaching, infection can be prevented.

To limit the risk from ticks, try to avoid their habitats. The Ixodes ticks that carry B. burgdorferi can often be found in leaf litter, vegetation, overhanging branches or overgrown lawns.

You should regularly check your pet for ticks. Especially if heading out in to areas where ticks thrive. Quick removal is important to prevent ticks from spreading infection.

See our guide on how to remove a tick from a dog.

Summary: Lyme Disease in Dogs

  • Lyme disease in dogs is caused by the bacterium B. burgdorferi carried by ticks. Ixodes species are the main carriers of this bacteria.
  • Many dogs test positive for B. burgdorferi infection but only 5% of dogs display the symptoms of Lyme disease.
  • Symptoms can be difficult to spot and can take months to manifest. Joint pain, arthritis and lameness are symptoms of the disease. In some rare cases, kidney damage has been reported.
  • Treatment is cheap and involves the antibiotic doxycycline. The recommended course duration is 1 month. A vaccine is available but not considered very effective.  
  • Tick control and removal is the best action to minimise the risk of Lyme disease. Quick removal of a tick can prevent it from infecting a dog.

References:

  1. Smith, F., Ballantyne, R., Morgan, E. and Wall, R. (2012). Estimating Lyme disease risk using pet dogs as sentinels. Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 35(2), pp.163-167.
  2. Magnarelli LA, Anderson JF, Schreier AB, Ficke CM. Clinical and serologic studies of canine borreliosis. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1987;191(9):1089-94.
  3. Levy SA, Magnarelli LA. Relationship between development of antibodies to Borrelia burgdorferi in dogs and the subsequent development of limb/joint borreliosis. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1992;200(3):344-7.
  4. Straubinger RK, Straubinger AF, Summers BA, Jacobson RH, Erb HN. Clinical manifestations, pathogenesis, and effect of antibiotic treatment on Lyme borreliosis in dogs. Wien Klin Wochenschr. 1998;110(24):874-81.
  5. Berende A, Ter hofstede HJ, Vos FJ, et al. Randomized Trial of Longer-Term Therapy for Symptoms Attributed to Lyme Disease. N Engl J Med. 2016;374(13):1209-20.
  6. Littman MP, Goldstein RE, Labato MA, Lappin MR, Moore GE. ACVIM small animal consensus statement on Lyme disease in dogs: diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. J Vet Intern Med. 2006;20(2):422-34.

About James Watts

BSc Bioveterinary Science. Editor of PetSci. When I'm not writing, learning, discussing, or reading about animals, you know it's the weekend! Currently developing PetSci HealthTrak, the fast and easy way to monitor your pet's weight and calorie intake. HealthTrak offers a simple way to track your pet's progress, helping them achieve a healthy weight and a long, happy life.

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