Signs in dogs: lethargy, fever, limping, protein losing kidney disease/failure
Prevention: flea/tick prevention (chewable Nexgard), Lyme vaccination, daily tick checks, avoiding tick infested environments (tall grasses, fields, woods)
Lyme disease is caused by infection with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. The infection is transmitted by the bite of a black legged tick (deer tick). Although previously it was thought that if a tick were removed within 24 hours infection could not occur, it is now believed that Lyme infection can occur within hours.
Dogs do not develop the classic bulls eye rash after being bitten and it can take 1-4 months after being bitten by an infected tick for dogs to show signs of Lyme Disease.
Cats are not thought to develop Lyme disease; other non-human animals sickened by Lyme infection are horses, cattle, and small rodents and rabbits.
Most dogs are able clear the Lyme organism and, although blood antibodies show previous infection, there are no signs of disease. Some dogs develop fever, lethargy, or limping from joint inflammation. Other dogs develop kidney disease (Lyme nephritis), caused by damage to the kidneys’ filtration unit by the immune response to Lyme, that allows protein to leak through. These dogs show no clinical signs of kidney damage until they develop kidney failure months or years later- this is why blood testing (and, if Lyme positive, urine testing) are so important for Lyme surveillance. This kidney disease, while medically manageable in the early stages, is not curable.
Dogs are resistant to the neurological and heart manifestations of Lyme disease that occur in humans. Canine patients that show clinical signs of Lyme or have a high C6 antibody level, or abnormal levels of protein in the urine, are treated with a course of an antibiotic. The infection is not always permanently cleared from the body by the immune system or with antibiotics, because the Lyme organism can hide within the body and from the immune system.
Preventing infection requires a multi pronged approach in a high risk area for tick disease such as Massachusetts. An effective flea/tick product should be used every month year round, because black legged ticks bite even during the winter. I have seen ticks on dog patients all through the winter, except when a thick blanket of snow is keeping pets and pet parents snuggled by the fire.
The monthly chewable Nexgard is very effective at preventing ticks from attaching long enough to transmit disease and is the product we recommend at Domino Veterinary Hospital in Concord, MA. Some patients may need a tick collar (Scalibor, Seresto) in addition, if they go into tick heavy environment (such as walks in the woods or tall grass), to give additional protection.
Lyme vaccination is a great tool in addition to tick control- this vaccine is given yearly and helps the immune system inactivate Lyme both inside the tick’s gut and in the dog’s body. Keeping dogs out of areas that are tick infested- high grasses, fields, woods- especially during the peak feeding season is helpful. Environmental control of ticks including spraying pesticides is an option but comes with possible risks. Tick tubes decrease local tick populations by giving mice, which are part of the deer tick’s life cycle, nesting material that is toxic to ticks.
All dogs at Domino have their blood tested yearly for tick diseases. A large number of dogs in this area test positive for Lyme and other tick borne diseases (predominantly anaplasma, occasionally ehrlichia). The Concord Massachusetts area’s beautiful hiking trails and open spaces that keep the dog population so active, lean, and happy are infested with ticks.
Over a 5 year course in Middlesex county, 691,400 positive Lyme tests in dogs were reported by Idexx, one of the two big veterinary labs.
It's important to protect your dog by using effective flea/tick prevention, checking them for ticks daily, keeping them (and yourself) away from high tick areas, as well as considering vaccination.
Unfortunately ticks and all the diseases they carry are a growing concern. As a pet owner it is becoming more and more important that you have a preventive routine in place to keep your pet (and yourself and your family) free of tick related illness so they can live a healthy and happy life.
Dr. Astrid Kruse graduated from Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2003. After completing a year long rotating small animal medicine and surgery internship, she joined the staff at a large general practice hospital on the North Shore, where she enjoyed forming long term connections with her patients and clients. She is now excited to join the team at Domino Veterinary Hospital in Concord, MA! Her special interests include dog and cat internal medicine, preventative health care, rabbit and guinea pig medicine, soft tissue surgery, and dentistry in all species.