Lyme Disease in Dogs

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the spiral shaped bacteria Borrelia burgdorfei.  It is spread by ticks and can affect dogs, humans and horses. The bacteria, Borrelia burgdorfei, can travel around the body and attack various tissues. Most commonly the joints are affected, but organs such as the kidney and heart can also be damaged.

 

How is Lyme disease transmitted in dogs?

Dogs can catch Lyme disease after they have been bitten by an infected tick.  Ticks can’t jump so in order to get onto your dog, small unfed ticks sit on the top of long grass and vegetation. As your dog brushes past whilst on a walk, or even while out in the garden, they latch on and bite.  In order for an infected tick to pass on Borrelia, it must be attached to the host (your dog) for a minimum of 16-24 hours.

Which ticks cause Lyme disease in dogs?

There are over 20 different species of ticks in the UK, and the most common one to bite dogs is also the main vector of  Borrelia. This is the species Ixodes ricinus, also known as the sheep tick. Other species of tick in the Ixodidae family can also carry Lyme disease, such as the hedgehock tick Ixodes hexagonus.

It is important to remember that the ticks themselves do not cause Lyme disease. Only ticks who have become infected with the bacteria themselves can then pass it on through their salivary glands when they bite.

Ticks become infected by feeding on an infected reservoir host, such as a deer or mouse.

It’s clear to see then that not every tick will pose a risk, nor will every tick bite, but with an increasing number of endemic ticks in the UK, it’s best to use a reputable tick treatment all year round to quickly kill any ticks attaching to your dog, to reduce the risk.

Can I catch Lyme disease from my dog?

Lyme disease cannot be transmitted from dog to human, or indeed from human to dog. The tick plays the role of the vector for transmission of the disease.  You will only catch Lyme disease if you are bitten by an infected tick.

 

What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs?

The clinical signs of Lyme disease can vary from dog to dog, as can the severity and duration of symptoms. This is one of the reasons why it can be difficult to diagnose. Clinical signs of the illness include:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Stiffness
  • Swollen joints
  • Shifting lameness from one limb to another
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

Compared to other animals such as cats and rabbits, dogs do tend to be more susceptible to contracting Lyme disease.  Yet, the majority of infected cases, as many as 90%, will be subclinical and won’t show any symptoms at all.  It’s possible that a dog could have contracted Lyme disease as a young animal and spend their entire life without any issues, and without us even knowing.

When do dogs show symptoms of Lyme disease?

Some dogs may show symptoms of Lyme disease sooner than others. In some cases, dogs may show symptoms such as lethargy and fever 2-4 days after being bitten, whereas others can take weeks or even months before they display any clinical signs.

After being bitten, Borrelia remains in the skin of the dog. If it enters the bloodstream it spreads to other tissues where a systemic infection develops.

If an acute infection is missed and goes untreated, the symptoms may subside and the dog will become chronically infected. Throughout various stage of their life, they may have relapses of joint pain, or more worryingly the disease can progress to the kidneys, nervous system and heart.  Although it is very rare, kidney damage can be a real threat in this chronic version of the disease.

 

How do you prevent Lyme disease in dogs?

Tick control is the method of choice in preventing Lyme disease in your dog. It is not possible to control the number of ticks in the environment, in fact, they are not just in grassy woodlands, but also in gardens, and on wildlife in urban areas. Therefore, it is really important to use a good preventative tick treatment for your dog such as Frontline.

There are several different ways to administer tick treatment to your dog. Spot-on such as Frontline are easily administered onto the skin on the back of your dog’s neck. A longer-lasting form of protection is a Seresto flea and tick collar, which can offer protection for up to 8 months.  Oral tablets are available with a prescription from your vet.

While these products do a great job, you should still check your dog daily for ticks, and promptly remove any that you find. If removed within 24 hours the chance of transmission of Borrelia is vastly reduced.

A good tick hook will ensure that the whole tick is removed without leaving the head behind. If you do have to remove one, try not to crush the tick and do not use topical applications such as petroleum jelly, as both of these actions will cause the tick to become stressed and release salivary gland contents which can actually increase the risk of bacteria transmission.

How do I know if my dog has Lyme disease?

If you have any concerns for your dog’s health then seek veterinary advice. While diagnosis of Lyme disease can be difficult, your vet will perform a thorough clinical examination of your dog and take a detailed history. As symptoms can occur sometime after a tick bite, it can often be difficult to link the two events.   A series of blood test will help to confirm the disease.

 

When do you treat Lyme disease in dogs?

If your dog has been diagnosed with Lyme disease your vet will initiate treatment. This is usually a long course of antibiotics for at least one month but maybe more.  It is common for symptoms to improve quickly, within a couple of days, but it is important to finish the course of treatment to ensure the infection does not persist.

The treatment can be given at home unless your dog is showing severe signs of illness.  In which case your dog may be admitted for more intensive care as needed.  Your vet will be in regular contact with you throughout the course of your dog’s treatment, and if he is not responding in the way they would like, he will be reassessed.

Is Lyme disease curable?

The majority of dogs respond very well to medication, but it very much depends on each case, and when they receive their medication.

Unfortunately, it is not always curable, and even though their symptoms have been relieved, the infection can persist within their body for years after they were infected.

It is also worth noting that a cured dog can be reinfected if they were to be bitten by an infected tick again.  This is why maintaining routine preventative tick treatment is so important.

 

Should I walk my dog in grassy areas?

The threat of Lyme disease should absolutely not put you off enjoying the beautiful walks that the UK has to offer. While there are a huge number of ticks in woods, forests and fields, good preventative measures can ensure these walks stay safe.

The benefits of getting outside and moving for both you and your dog are many. By ensuring you are adequately protecting your dog from tick bites, you can still continue to enjoy the beautiful outdoors and significantly reduce the risk of Lyme disease to your dog.

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