By Paula Fitzsimmons
You’re looking forward to a trip to the park with your canine companion. The weather is perfect, and your dog is staring at you, eagerly waiting to get out. Before leaving the house, keep in mind that, depending on where you live, both of you could be at risk of contracting Lyme disease.
Left untreated, Lyme disease can cause pain, discomfort, and potentially life-threatening symptoms for your dog. This doesn’t mean you both have to be hermits, but you should be aware of the risks of Lyme disease and work to take preventive measures.
“The best way to prevent Lyme disease [in endemic areas] is through strict adherence to tick control and yearly Lyme vaccination,” says Dr. Beth Poulsen, a veterinarian at Lodi Veterinary Care in Lodi, Wisconsin. “Each can play an important role in protecting dogs from Lyme disease.”
The following are some key reasons why you should take Lyme disease seriously.
More Dogs Are Testing Positive for Lyme Disease
The good news is that most dogs testing positive on the Lyme test will not become clinically ill, says Dr. Zenithson Ng, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, College of Veterinary Medicine. “Typically, less than 10 percent of dogs that have been exposed actually become sick.”
But that doesn’t mean your dog is home-free. “Lyme disease hasn’t been a serious issue in the past, but we’re seeing it more and more,” says Dr. Kristopher Sharpe, medical director of BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Incidents are increasing, so people should be more aware.”
The number of dogs testing positive for Lyme disease is growing, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council. Certain regions, including western Pennsylvania, New York state, northwestern Wisconsin, and northern Minnesota, have high incidents of Lyme disease. Nationwide, Lyme disease continues to expand beyond established endemic boundaries.
Dogs living in regions where Lyme disease is prevalent should be vaccinated, Poulsen says. “Lyme vaccination is administered after 12 weeks of age. The first vaccine requires a booster at three to four weeks, and then is a once yearly vaccine. The goal with vaccination is to help prevent active Lyme infection if a dog is exposed to disease.”
Ng says the vaccine for Lyme disease has been shown to be effective, but that tick prevention is the best bet against fighting Lyme disease.
There are several products on the market for tick control, including topical and oral medications, Poulsen says. “Historically, monthly topical medications have been the most effective means of tick control. More recently, oral medications have become available and are proving to be safe and more effective. Advantages of oral medication over topical include avoidance of residue from topical productions on skin/fur of dogs and ease of administration—most dogs will take them like a treat.” Discuss these options with your vet.
Ticks Can Transmit More Than Just Lyme Disease
Lyme disease isn’t the only infection ticks carry. Some can carry two, three, four, or more infections at once, says Sharpe, who is board certified in veterinary internal medicine. And they can be as concerning—or more concerning—than Lyme disease, he says.
“Other tick-borne infections currently seen in the United States include Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), Ehrlichiosis, Babesiosis, and Anaplasmosis. In terms of the rate of disease, mortality, and severity of disease, RMSF is likely the most important tick-borne infection in the United States.”
Each of these diseases is caused by a different species of bacteria, Ng says. “Lyme disease is specifically caused by the spirochete organism, Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried by deer ticks. RMSF is caused by Rickettsia rickettsii, typically carried by American dog ticks or brown dog ticks.”
Co-infections can be common and symptoms of the various tick-borne diseases can overlap, says Ng, which can make diagnosis more challenging. “Most common symptoms of the diseases carried by ticks—lethargy, depression, decreased appetite—are vague,” Ng says. These are symptoms that also fit any number of non-tick diseases.
People Get Lyme Disease, Too
We contract Lyme disease the same way our dogs do—by getting bit directly by a disease-carrying deer tick. So rest easy; just being in contact with your dog, or even getting licked, is not going to put you at risk, even if she does come down with Lyme disease.
“However, if your dog tests positive for Lyme, it means the disease is present in your immediate area, making prevention for you and your pet very important,” Poulsen says.
But you may be at an increased risk of exposure because of the ticks that have “hitched a ride” on your dog, explains Dr. Lori Bierbrier, ASPCA’s medical director of community medicine. “Especially if the dog spends significant time outdoors and then comes indoors onto shared spaces, such as beds and couches.”
When you get home from being outdoors with your pooch, check her body (and yours) for ticks then take steps to remove them.
Lyme Disease Could Lead to Kidney Failure
Contracting a life-threatening kidney disease called Lyme nephritis is a major concern for dogs with Lyme disease, Ng explains. “This is where the body’s immune system forms antibodies (the immune system produces these in response to foreign substances introduced into the body) to the organism and creates antibody complexes that become deposited in the kidneys and damages them. This results in kidney failure and inevitable death.” It’s a very rare disease, with Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers being the most susceptible, he says.
Symptoms associated with Lyme nephritis are worsening lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting, and a change in urination and thirst, Bierbrier says.
Lyme Disease Causes Pain and Discomfort
Lyme disease in dogs tends to be associated with pain and discomfort, including stiffness and joint pain, Bierbrier says. “Dogs will often have difficulty walking and transitioning from lying down to standing. They may also be lethargic and have a fever.”
There’s also the discomfort associated with veterinary treatment—plus the inconvenience and added expense for you. “After Lyme disease is diagnosed the treatment is a four-week course of antibiotics,” Poulsen says. “Treatment does not always eliminate the organism from the body, which is why titers often remain positive even after treatment.”
Dogs with Lyme nephritis need more aggressive treatment, including hospitalization for intravenous fluids and injectable antibiotics, but this form of Lyme disease doesn’t tend to respond well to treatment, she says.