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Lyme Disease and Your Pet
By Mark Pessin, DVM
The weather is nicer and that means it is tick season. That can also mean diseases that are transmitted by ticks. Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-transmitted diseases in the world, commonly affecting humans, dogs and horses. Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia Burgdorferi and is spread by ticks. Ticks become infected with the bacteria by feeding on infected mice and other small animals. When an infected tick bites other animals like your dog, it can transmit the disease. The most common tick to spread the disease is the deer tick (blacklegged tick).
The most common clinical sign of a dog that is sick with Lyme disease is a recurrent lameness. Other signs include fever, decreased appetite, swollen and painful joints, lethargy and swollen lymph nodes. However up to 95 percent of dogs infected with the bacteria do not develop symptoms, so it is very important to have your pet tested every year. A more serious development in dogs with Lyme disease can be kidney problems. These dogs may show clinical signs such as vomiting, increased thirst and urination. These dogs can become very sick and often the disease is fatal at this point.
Dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors, in the woods, brush areas and tall grass areas are more at risk for being bitten by ticks. However ticks can be brought into your own back yards by other wild animals as well. The deer tick is most common along the Mid-Atlantic and New England coastal states, northeastern states and the upper Midwest, but the tick can be found anywhere in the country.
The diagnosis of Lyme disease can be challenging. Infections usually occur during tick season which is spring to early fall, but the time between infection and the appearance of symptoms can be two to five months. Not all dogs exposed to the bacteria get sick, which can confuse the diagnosis even more because a positive result on a Lyme disease test does not always indicate active infection. A diagnosis is made by a combination of factors including a history of tick exposure, a positive Lyme disease test, other blood tests, urinalysis and clinical signs such as lameness. Your veterinarian will decide which dogs need to be treated and which do not.
The treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotics. When the clinical signs are lameness, a rapid improvement is expected usually within a few days. Treatment will last usually three to four weeks. If kidney disease is present, a longer course of antibiotics is usually warranted and additional medications are usually needed.
Tick control is the key to preventing Lyme disease. Check your dog daily and remove all ticks that are found. Ticks must feed for at least 12 hours on your dog to transmit disease so the faster you remove the ticks the better chance of stopping disease transmission. There are many products that your veterinarian can recommend that can prevent tick attachment in the first place. Products include spot-on treatments, sprays and collars. Make sure you carefully follow all veterinarian recommendations when using these products. Finally keep grass and brush trimmed in your yard and in areas where ticks are a problem. You can also consider treating your yard for ticks.
Dr. Pessin is the director at Fairview Veterinary Hospital, where he’s practiced veterinary medicine since 2000. He holds a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and he received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Muhlenberg College. He also holds a master’s degree in wildlife studies from North Dakota State University. He has three dogs and two cats, as well as a barn for a small number of sheep and miniature donkeys!