Lyme Disease in Dogs: Recognizing the Signs

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What Exactly Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease, or Borreliosis, is a very infectious disease in dogs that comes from exposure to ticks. It has many dominant symptoms that you can quickly notice in your dog, mainly lameness in the joins. It’s one of the most common tick-transmitted diseases, but despite that, it still only causes symptoms in 5-10% of affected dogs. The ticks get into the dog’s bloodstream through a bite and once in the bloodstream, the bacteria travels to different parts of the body and cause stiffness in specific joints and overall illnesses.

When a dog has Lyme disease, it suffers from inflammation in the joints, which means recurring lameness. This is a horrible sensation for dogs to feel and alongside it, they can also suffer from loss of appetite and depression, just to name a few. You don’t want your furry friends to suffer from Lyme disease since it’s a very uncomfortable disease that can escalate into something fast, so it’s good to spot any red flags as early as possible.

When not detected on time, complications can arise from Lyme disease such as kidney problems, heart diseases, and nervous system failures. These are very rare but Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Shetland Sheepdogs, or Bernese Mountain Dogs are unfortunately more at risk for kidney-related problems caused by Lyme disease.

Although most dogs suffer from health problems at an older age, Lyme disease typically affects younger dogs. Geographic region also has an affect on the spread of Lyme disease. Although it can be found in dogs across the United States and Europe, it is even more common for dogs in the upper Midwestern states, the Atlantic seaboard, and the Pacific Coast states.

Lyme Disease Symptoms in Dogs

One of the main symptoms of Lyme disease is limping in dogs, which can be alarming when first spotted. With Lyme disease, lameness is ongoing and can last anywhere from three to four days but sometimes, even goes on for weeks on end. It can worsen in the same leg or move on to other legs. If it jumps to other legs, then it’s often called “shifting-leg lameness”.

This lameness causes extreme discomfort, because lameness often causes a dog’s legs to feel swollen, warm, and painful. If you see your dog suddenly limping, don’t assume that they injured their paw or got tired from running too much at the park. It might be something more serious, like Lyme disease.

How can you tell whether they injured themselves or if it’s Lyme disease? If your dog is consistently lifting the same leg, then he’s probably just injured it. But if the leg pain is shifting around and shifts from one leg to the next, it could be a sign of “shifting-leg-lameness” and actually a result from Lyme disease.

Lyme disease can also cause kidney problems in dogs. Dog kidney disease comes with a host of other problems like diarrhea, lack of appetite, weight loss, increased urination and thirst, and fluid build-ups.

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Some general symptoms of Lyme Disease in dogs include:

  • Stiff walking with an arched back
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • General stiffness, discomfort, or pain
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Depression
  • Heart abnormalities (more rare)
  • Nervous system complications (more rare)

Transmission of Lyme Disease

Ticks that carry Lyme disease are often found in tall-grasses, thick bushes, marshes, and in the woods, especially in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Pacific coast. So if you and your dog happen to be around terrain similar to that, be on the lookout! Ticks are waiting to get your dog when he walks by, so it’s best to be careful in areas like this or better yet, stay away from them. The whole process is extremely fast. In fact, once a tick lands on the dog and bites him, it can transmit the disease in less than 48 hours.

Blacklegged ticks are the primary carriers of Lyme disease. Blacklegged ticks are most commonly found in wooded and deep bushy, grassy areas, especially near the woods. It’s hard to avoid ticks because ticks are a year-long problem and not specific to any season, but the majority of cases occur from October to March, so it’s important to keep that in mind when going outdoors with your dog. Ticks are crawlers that latch on to your dog by hanging out at the tips of bushes and grass and then jump onto your dog’s skin.

Ticks are not exclusive to woods, though. Even city dogs can come in contact with ticks that carry Lyme disease. Ticks can’t be dehydrated, so you won’t find them in low-cut lawns out in the open.

Luckily, adult ticks are pretty easy to spot on your dog. If you do happen to go outdoors in an area that may have ticks, inspect your dog for ticks afterwards. Adult ticks will be easy to spot and you can find them near your dog’s head, ears, or neck. They may also be in harder-to-spot crevices in order to hide from your dog, like between the toes. Dogs can feel adult ticks on them and they try to get rid of them, so if you spot them early on, it makes it easier.

Once you see the tick, it’s tempting to immediately take it off the dog with your fingers. But this is not recommended. Instead, get a pair of sharpened tweezers and grab them from the head as far down as possible.

Diagnosing Lyme Disease in Dogs

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In order to properly diagnose Lyme disease, vets will perform two types of blood tests that can indicate whether or not your dog is infected.

The antibody test will detect the presence of not just bacterium, but also specific antibodies that are formed in the dog’s body in reaction of the bacterium. If the test comes back positive, then your dog has in fact been exposed to the bacterium. There is a possibility of it coming back as a false positive, though. This occurs when the dog doesn’t have a high enough level of antibodies in their system. Therefore, the test is unable to pick up on them.

Another test that vets conduct is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, a specific DNA test that confirms the presence of the disease-causing bacteria. Unlike the first test, this test looks directly for the presence of disease-causing bacteria rather than just looking for antibodies.

Are Humans At Risk?

Can you catch Lyme disease from your dog? No. Dogs cannot directly infect people and Lyme disease can’t be transmitted from one pet to another pet or from pets to humans. The only way Lyme Disease is spread is through tick bites. That being said, if a tick is on your dog’s fur and it then comes into your house, there’s a possibility that it could get on you as well.

In order to avoid exposure to tick bites, as a dog owner, you can also avoid the woods, tall grasses, and bushes, wear long pants, and check you and your dog for ticks each time you leave the outdoors.

Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs

Luckily, there are many ways that you can prevent Lyme disease from getting to your dog. The CDS has tips on how to prevent Lyme disease carrying ticks from biting your dog.

These include:

  • Checking your dog for ticks on a daily basis, especially if they are spending time outdoors
  • Remove ticks right away if you do spot one
  • Ask your veterinarian to conduct tick checks at each exam just in case, even if they don’t have any symptoms
  • Know what tick-borne diseases are more common in your area
  • Get rid of tick habitats in your yard by clearing out tall grasses and bushes
  • Use tick and flea preventative measures recommended by your vet
  • Vaccinations are also an option and prevent dogs from getting Lyme disease, but first talk to your vet to see if this is a good option for your dog

Always Take Precautions

Lyme disease can be a stressful thing to see your furry friend go through. If your dog does happen to get Lyme disease, just know that it is treatable with antibiotics and can be a pain-free process if spotted in its early stages. But perhaps the best way to prevent your dog from even experiencing Lyme disease symptoms is to prevent the tick attachment in the first place. With no ticks around, your dog will be safe from getting bitten and hopefully not get exposed and develop Lyme disease.

Next time you go outside with your dog, keep an eye out and make sure that you’re not in a tick-prone area. If you are, then double check your dog for ticks and if you do spot one, take it out. If you follow all of these preventative measures, you will help lower your dog’s risk of developing Lyme Disease.

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