Vets Share The Most Common Signs Of Lyme Disease In Dogs

If your pooch has Lyme disease, it means they're bringing infected ticks into your home, making it important to protect yourself, too.

Summer brings lots of great elements, such as barbecues, beach days and later sunsets ― but it also means the start of a widely despised time: tick season.

The small parasites can be hugely problematic in many parts of the country. Some carry the risk of Lyme disease, a debilitating tick-borne illness that can infect both people and animals — including dogs.

“Nearly 90% of cases of Lyme disease in people and in dogs occur in the northeastern United States, and the remaining 10% of cases are primarily occurring in the Midwest, and the Upper Midwest area — Minnesota, Wisconsin … and then there’s a small percentage in Northern California, but the overall spatial distribution of the disease is increasing,” said Dr. Jane Sykes, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in California.

“Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi … dogs are infected when bitten by a tick that carries the organism,” said Dr. Michael Stone, internal medicine veterinarian and associate clinical professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Not all ticks are carriers of the disease. In the Northeast and Midwest, deer ticks are carriers; in California, western black-legged ticks transmit the illness, according to Sykes.

No matter what, it’s always unsettling to find a tick on yourself, on your pet or in your home. While people can vocalize any symptoms they have after finding a tick, the same can’t be said for dogs. Even more troubling: “Most dogs show no signs at all when they’re infected,” Sykes said.

Dogs can develop antibodies to the bacteria without symptoms, she added.

“And when veterinarians are testing dogs routinely … with tests that include a test for Lyme disease, getting positive results on that doesn’t mean that your dog has Lyme disease. It just means your dog was exposed to Borrelia and developed antibodies to Borrelia, but it’s not a reason to treat,” Sykes said.

In some instances, dogs can experience issues related to Lyme disease. Here are the signs:

They generally appear and act unwell.

According to Sykes, it takes at least a month for any signs of Lyme disease to appear in a dog (if they have signs at all). “The dogs that do develop signs, they can have sort of nonspecific signs like a fever and decreased appetite,” Sykes explained.

They also may be more tired than usual and less active than usual too, she said.

However, just because your dog has these signs doesn’t automatically mean they have Lyme disease. Many issues, from kennel cough to canine influenza to a gastrointestinal blockage can cause these issues.

Either way, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your vet if your pet shows any out-of-the-ordinary behavior. There are treatments available for most instances of Lyme disease in dogs, Sykes noted.

Limping and swollen joints can also occur.

A dog infected with Lyme disease may experience limping in one or multiple legs, Stone said. Specifically ― as with people, too ― Lyme disease in dogs can cause arthritis, Sykes noted.

“The small joints … of the limbs become inflamed, and that leads to lameness and sometimes swelling of those joints,” Sykes explained. “And so these dogs that are infected, they look almost like they’re walking on eggshells because every joint hurts.” Their lameness may shift from one leg to another in this case, she added.

In rare cases, dogs can have kidney complications.

In a small percentage of dogs — particularly retriever breeds — a serious kidney complication called Lyme nephritis can happen, Sykes said. “It’s an acute kidney injury, there’s kidney failure and protein loss into the urine, and that can be very hard to treat,” she said.

Signs of this rare condition include vomiting, more frequent urination and weight loss, according to Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “And that’s really the thing that we want to prevent the most through efforts to prevent Lyme disease,” Sykes added.

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If your pooch has Lyme disease, it means they’re bringing infected ticks into your home, making it important to protect yourself, too.

Luckily, there are many ways to protect your dog from Lyme disease.

“My primary recommendation is tick prevention,” Stone said. “There are many effective products available from your veterinarian.”

Sykes added that many of the preventative products kill ticks within 24 hours of attachment to your pup. (A tick typically needs to be attached for at least 24 hours before it can spread Lyme.)

“So, you can use preventative products, and they’re not going to be 100%, especially in areas where you’ve got lots of ticks … they’ll decrease the chance of transmission,” Sykes noted.

There are both prescription and non-prescription formulations available, Stone added, “but some products are more effective than others.”

Lyme vaccinations and preventive pills are available, along with tick prevention collars and anti-tick sprays. As mentioned above, these preventive products don’t mean a tick won’t end up on your dog. If you do find a tick on your pup, you can remove it yourself using tweezers.

To figure out the best medication for your pup, chat with your veterinarian, he said. And if your dog does become infected, your veterinarian can help determine the best treatment, too.

If your dog is diagnosed with Lyme disease, you should consider your own health as well.

“If your dog gets diagnosed with Lyme disease, or even if your dog has just a positive test result … it means that your dog’s getting exposed, and you in your household are also at risk of getting infected and exposed,” Sykes said.

Check yourself for ticks and be mindful of the signs of Lyme disease in people, which include joint pain, fever, chills, stiff neck and headache, according to Penn Medicine. The bull’s eye rash is a commonly known red flag, too.

While it’s important to check your dogs for ticks after walks, it’s just as important to check yourself. Wearing protective clothing can also help keep ticks from attaching your skin, Sykes noted.

Lyme disease can be serious in dogs and serious in people, too, making it crucial that both you and your pet stay protected.

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