Lyme Disease in Dogs: Symptoms and Treatments

Reviewed By Julie •  Updated: 02/11/21 •  9 min read
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Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-borne illnesses diagnosed in dogs. It can affect both humans and dogs, and can be a mild infection or may be quite severe. In this article, we’ll review what Lyme disease is, how it can be treated and more.

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What is Lyme Disease in Dogs 

Lyme disease is named Lyme, Connecticut. Back in 1975, several cases were diagnosed. The disease, also called Lyme borreliosis, is a bacterial infection caused black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks. Deer ticks live in forests, grassy & marshy areas near rivers, and they even live by lakes and oceans. These ticks may even live in your own backyard. The disease can also be carried by other ticks, but the Deer tick is the most common carrier. The tick climbs onto the host and eventually may bite and inject the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium into the dog’s bloodstream. The bacteria and spiral-shaped (they’re also called spirochetes), and when in the bloodstream, they can travel to various parts of the body. The infection then can lead to overall illness. The infection seems to affect only 10% of dogs that are bitten by the Deer tick.

How Do Ticks Get on Dogs?

The Deer tick becomes a carrier of the bacterium when it bites an animal that’s been infected. This can include a mouse, deer, or other animals. Ticks do not have the disease at birth—they only pick up the bacteria after biting an infected animal. The spiral-shaped bacteria then live in the tick’s midgut until the tick bites again. Ticks crawl, rather than jumping or flying. Instead, they wait in an area with high vegetation, and when a person or animal brushes against the grass, bush, etc., the tick can quickly latch on. Once on the host’s body, the tick may crawl around until it finds a place to bite. After biting, the spirochetes are injected from the tick’s salivary glands and into the animal’s bloodstream. They then take up residence in the host.

On people, the tick generally leaves a characteristic bull’s-eye rash at the site of the bite. The rash can appear anywhere from three to thirty days after the bite. However, in dogs, it can be more difficult to tell if they’ve bitten or not. They don’t develop the characteristic rash. We understand that this description may be making you feel crawly. But it’s important to understand how and where ticks can attach themselves to your fur baby. Once the tick bites, it can inject the bacteria into the bloodstream of its host.

Signs & Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs

What does Lyme disease look like on a dog? Some dogs may not show any symptoms, while others will show symptoms up to 2-5 months after the initial tick bite. Signs and symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs can include:

Lyme disease causes inflammation and swelling of the joints. This can lead to lameness and just not feeling good. The bacteria responsible for Lyme can also damage your fur baby’s organs. If your dog has Lyme disease, you may notice that he’s lame off and on, or only for a couple of days. It can depend. This will usually affect your dog again possibly in as little as a few days to weeks later. You may notice the same leg seems to be affected, though lameness can also show up in the other legs. A dog with Lyme disease shaking is another symptom you may notice.

This tick-borne disease can cause kidney issues in some dogs. It can lead to glomerulonephritis, which is inflammation and dysfunction of the kidney’s glomeruli, which work to filter blood. This can eventually lead to kidney failure. At this point, a dog may vomit, have diarrhea, lack of appetite, weight loss, abnormal fluid buildup and increased thirst and urination. Some pet parents ask if Lyme disease in dogs contagious. No, you can’t get the disease from your dog. You can only get Lyme directly from a tick bite. Chronic Lyme disease in dogs can also develop, just as it does for some people. In this case, if left untreated, the symptoms of the disease may come and go over months or even years. This form of Lyme can also lead to organ problems and even death.

How is Lyme Diagnosed in Dogs?

Dogs that exhibit the symptoms above may be suspected of having Lyme, though other disease can also cause similar symptoms. If your vet suspects Lyme disease, he will take a thorough history of your dog’s health and symptoms. They will also ask when you first noticed symptoms and what those symptoms were. The vet may also ask if you and your fur baby have recently been in areas where ticks are often found.

After a physical exam, the vet may also order blood tests, though these are not often helpful in the diagnosis of Lyme. Antibodies against the bacteria may be found 4-6 weeks after the initial infection, which can confirm the dog has Lyme disease. On the other hand, the tests may show everything is normal, in spite of the dog being infected. However, the blood tests will help the vet rule out other causes and diseases. As a result, the diagnosis may be based more on your fur baby’s symptoms, especially if you were both recently in an area infested with ticks.

Treatment of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Antibiotics are usually the treatment for Lyme in dogs. The antibiotics most often used include:

Treatment usually lasts for four weeks; though it is possible your canine companion may need on-going treatment if he develops chronic Lyme. In addition, your dog may be treated for other symptoms he may be experiencing. After treatment, your pup may need to visit the vet for checkups because the infection can recur. What is the dog with Lyme disease life expectancy? If your fur baby receives veterinary care for the Lyme infection, the prognosis is very good. Most dogs go on to live normal, happy doggie lives after a Lyme infection. It’s usually not fatal, though a dog can develop organ damage, especially in the kidney. Kidney damage can cause your dog’s health to rapidly worsen, or it may even lead to death.

Managing Lyme Disease in Dogs

Once treatment begins, your dog should begin to feel better. However, in some cases, the dog may not improve. In this case, if your fur baby has not improved within 3-5 days once treatment begins, then it’s time to call the vet.

Alternative Treatments for Canine Lyme Disease

There are some alternative treatments for Lyme in dogs; however, you should always consult the vet to see if these treatments are appropriate for your dog. Alternative treatments should only be used in conjunction with proper veterinary care, and never on their own to treat Lyme.

Alternative treatments for dogs with Lyme include:

Prevention of Lyme Disease in Dogs

There are things you can do to keep your dog from developing Lyme disease, which includes:

1). After walks in the woods and other places ticks are prevalent, be sure to inspect your dog (and yourself) each time. Ticks may be found on your dog’s feet, lips, around his eyes or on/inside his ears, near the anus, or even under the tail.

2). Remove ticks as soon as possible. The earlier the tick is removed, the likelihood of your dog developing Lyme are reduced. Learn how to properly remove a tick. You can use a pair of fine tweezers, a special tool that is used to remove ticks, or take your dog to the veterinarian if you’re unable to remove the tick. Removing the tick as soon as possible is key.

3). Have the vet also check your dog for ticks at every checkup. The vet may even find some ticks that you may have missed.

4). Near your home, keep the grass mowed as short as possible. Avoid walking through grassy areas, as these are usually infested with ticks.

5). Vaccinate your fur baby against Lyme disease. The vaccine may not be appropriate for all dogs; check with your vet to see if this is a good option for your canine companion.

6). Ask the vet to prescribe flea and tick collars, topical or oral products that work to repel and kill ticks. Be sure to ask for a product that kills the nymphs (baby ticks), too.

7). When hiking, stick to the trails and avoid allowing your fur baby to walk in the grass. Also keep him away from any thick underbrush and other areas that ticks live.

Summing It Up

Lyme disease is a treatable infection. The earlier you have your dog treated the faster he’ll feel better. You may also keep him from developing chronic Lyme or other health issues caused by the infection.

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Julie is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she studied Animal science. Though contrary to the opinion of her parents she was meant to study pharmacy, but she was in love with animals especially cats. Julie currently works in an animal research institute (NGO) in California and loves spending quality time with her little cat. She has the passion for making research about animals, how they survive, their way of life among others and publishes it. Julie is also happily married with two kids.

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