July 27, 2021
Written by Pumpkin Care Pet Insurance,
reviewed by Stacy Choczynski Johnson, DVM
Lyme disease has become increasingly common in humans, and as a result, many pet owners have become concerned about Lyme disease in dogs. While this tick-borne illness is serious, it doesn’t have to be a deadly one for our canine companions. That said, dog owners still need to be quite vigilant and responsible about taking proper precautions to prevent and treat Lyme disease in their pets. Here’s everything you need to know about Lyme disease in dogs – so you can stay informed and prepared. (And let’s face it – calm. Because it is a major concern!)
Like humans, dogs can contract Lyme disease from ticks, specifically the deer tick, which carries the bacteria that causes the disease. The American Kennel Club notes that the ticks most likely to carry Lyme disease are typically found in forests and woods (especially with cedar trees), marshes, tall grass, and areas with thick brush. In terms of geographical locations, ticks carrying Lyme have been expanding their reach across the United States in recent years, but are most prevalent in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Pacific Northwest regions.
Dr. Sarah Wooten, veterinarian and American Society of Veterinary Journalists (ASVJ) member, tells Pumpkin, “When your dog spends time in the woods, marshes, grass, or bushy areas without adequate tick protection on board, these monstrous little bugs can latch on and bite. Those bites can transmit bacteria into your dog’s bloodstream that cause Lyme disease, and that’s when we have a real problem.”
Your veterinarian will assess your dog’s symptoms, give them a physical, and typically also do bloodwork to determine their diagnosis. Bloodwork is necessary to confirm a Lyme diagnosis because many symptoms of Lyme disease can be mistaken for any number of other conditions.
“Lyme disease in dogs is diagnosed through a blood test,” Dr. Margit Muller, veterinarian and author, tells Pumpkin. She further explains, “This test detects the presence of antibodies to Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria strain that causes Lyme disease.”
A combination of two blood tests is typically done: the C6 Test and the Quant C6 Test. The C6 Test detects antibodies, and is a preliminary blood test that can be run in most veterinary hospitals. If that test is positive, then a secondary test, the Quant C6 test, can be run to confirm infection and if treatment is needed. It takes a while for antibodies to show up in the blood after a dog is infected, so it is not recommended to test dogs earlier than four weeks after a tick bite.
“Dogs may not show symptoms for weeks or even months after an infected tick bites them – and many dogs that are infected never show signs of illness,” Dr. Muller says, noting that the symptoms of Lyme disease depend on the progression of the initial infection. Clinical signs can include:
Limping or lameness (often intermittent and on different limbs)
Loss of appetite
Swollen lymph nodes
Kidney problems (It’s worth noting that kidney symptoms are less common than others, but are often more dangerous and can lead to kidney disease.)
If you live in an area where ticks are prevalent and your pup spends time outdoors, you should see your veterinarian right away if they experience any of these symptoms (even if you can’t spot a tick or tick bite)! It’s always better to err on the safe side.
Treating Lyme disease in a timely manner is absolutely crucial to your dog’s health, otherwise its complications can cause even more severe problems. Dr Muller further warns, “Lyme disease can lead to serious damage of the heart, nervous system, and kidneys.”
Dogs who are not treated for Lyme disease may find themselves with any of the following conditions:
Inflammation of the kidneys, and in severe cases, kidney failure. Symptoms of this kidney failure include increased thirst and urination, vomiting, diarrhea, swelling of extremities, and lack of appetite. This can be fatal.
Chronic pain from arthritis
Seizure disorders or facial paralysis as a result of damage to the nervous system
Many of these issues, if left untreated, can be potentially fatal, so the answer is clear. If your dog is diagnosed with Lyme disease, take care of it as soon as you possibly can.
The cost of Lyme disease treatment in dogs can vary by a number of factors, including where you live. From there, Dr. Muller says, “The costs often depend on the treatment duration. A four-week antibiotic course might cost around $800, plus the cost of the diagnostic blood tests may approximately be an additional $80 to $200 depending on the type of tests, in addition to the vet consultation fees.” Add in the cost of your dog’s prescription medications, and that can be costly for many pet parents. Having pet insurance can help cover these crucial veterinary expenses in a big way. That said, while Pumpkin Pet Insurance covers tick infections and tick-borne diseases like Lyme, not all pet insurance providers will. In addition to discussing your treatment options with your veterinarian, make sure to check with your insurance provider to see what conditions are covered.
Breathe easy: if caught in time, Lyme disease can be easily treated in dogs. “The treatment includes antibiotics for a duration of usually for at least 30 days, as well as supportive medication if needed,” Dr. Muller tells us. In order of use, those antibiotics are typically doxycycline, amoxicillin, followed by azithromycin. At times, dogs may need longer durations or more rounds of antibiotic treatments. Depending on how long they were ill, your pooch may also need therapy and treatments for individual organs or systems that have been affected by Lyme, especially the heart, nerves, joints, and kidneys.
Lyme disease is seen in dogs, cats, and humans but thankfully, no, Lyme disease is not contagious, as it can only be transmitted via a tick bite. However, if one of your dogs or cats develops it, you’ll want to get all of your pets checked for the illness, as they may all be at risk of exposure to the ticks that infected your sick fur baby. You may even want to get yourself checked as well, as people are usually in the same places as their pets.
You can’t give your dog Lyme disease, nor can your dog infect you. However, if either one of you has a tick, you should both be checked out by a medical professional. It’s entirely possible that the tick may have traveled from your body to your dog’s, or vice versa, without you realizing it. If you have an open wound, there is also a slight chance that the bacteria from the tick can pass through it, so make sure to be extra vigilant to keep yourself safe in those cases.
Like other dog health issues, there are a few factors that determine your pet’s prognosis. “The prognosis depends on the time of detection of the disease,” Dr. Muller says. “In the case of early treatment without manifest symptoms, the prognosis is good. However, if clinical symptoms are already present that have caused damage to the kidneys, heart, and nervous system, then the prognosis is poor.”
“Lyme disease can affect all dogs once they get bitten by an infected tick,” Dr. Muller says, “but Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers might be more predisposed to kidney problems stemming from Lyme disease if they do get infected.”
You are not powerless in preventing your dog from getting Lyme disease! Some easy prevention measures you can take include:
Inspect your dogs for ticks every day, especially if they’ve been in grassy or wooded areas. Take special care to look at, around, and in your dog’s ears and lips, on and under their tail, near their anus (ugh, we know – sorry!), and around their eyes. Also pay particular attention to their feet, especially in between their precious lil’ toe beans.
Inspect yourself for ticks often, as the same ticks that get on you may have gotten on your dog – or may try to.
Depending on where you live and the presence of ticks, some veterinarians can perform vector-borne disease tests (blood tests to check for heartworm and tick diseases) during annual wellness exams. Make sure to ask about this test.
If you live in an area where Lyme disease is prevalent, have your dog vaccinated against Lyme disease every year. Also be sure your veterinarian does tick checks on your dog at each visit – they may be able to find ones that you might have missed.
Ask your veterinarian which tick prevention methods and tools are best for your dog. There are plenty on the market, including readily available flea and tick collars that don’t require a prescription, but not all of them are suitable for every pet.
Consider a prescription tick preventative medication. Popular options include monthly oral chewables, like Simparica and Simparica Trio. Topical prescription preventative medication is also an option.
Depending on where you live, try to keep your dog out of wooded areas, marshes, and tall grass. If possible, mow your lawn to keep your own grass as short as possible.
“The biggest key here is to be very careful and very quick,” Dr. Wooten advises. “This is because your dog is most likely to contract Lyme disease from a tick that’s been feeding for 12 hours.” Here are some tips on how to do that:
Protect your hands from potential bacteria and bites with a tissue or disposable gloves.
Get a great set of tweezers dedicated exclusively to this purpose. Use these to remove any moving ticks you find immediately by pulling it straight up and off of your dog. (While unnerving, finding a moving tick is actually a good sign: If the tick is moving, chances are it hasn’t been feeding yet.)
If the tick isn’t moving and is stuck on your dog’s skin, get your tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight up and off of your pet. Be careful not to twist your tweezers, as this may rip off only part of the tick and leave its mouth on your pet and leave your dog at risk of infection.
If necessary, ask someone to help restrain your dog while you remove the tick.
Place the tick in rubbing alcohol or crush it. If you crush the tick, be sure not to get any of it on your skin. (Gross, we know!)
There are 4 Lyme vaccines available in the United States for dogs. Lyme vaccination is considered a ‘lifestyle vaccine’, i.e. not all dogs need it, and the decision to vaccinate is an individual one and is not for all dogs.
The Lyme vaccine works by sterilizing the bacteria in the gut of the tick, preventing transmission of bacteria to the dog if they are ever exposed. Lyme vaccines appear to prevent illness in 60%–86% dogs that are vaccinated, but not consistently in all dogs, and not for a very long duration of immunity.“To ensure the vaccine provides optimum protection” Dr. Wooten notes, “your dog will receive two initial injections of the vaccine, two-four weeks apart, and then either annual or biannual boosters to maintain immunity.”
While most dogs are tolerant of the Lyme disease vaccine, all dogs are different and may need another form of prevention. According to an article in Today’s Veterinary Practice, Golden Retrievers should not receive the Lyme vaccine because of a genetic predisposition to develop Lyme nephritis, an inflammatory kidney disease. Fortunately, if proper tick prevention is utilized, vaccination should not be necessary. However, your veterinarian will help you determine the best form of Lyme disease prevention based on your dog’s age, breed, size, any potential pre-existing conditions, and their overall health.
And now for your sigh of relief: Yes, Lyme disease in dogs can be cured if the treatment is applied in time. That’s why it’s super important to take your dog for a checkup if you suspect they were bitten by a tick, even if they don’t show any active symptoms.
Lyme disease in dogs is serious, but it is well within your power as a pet parent to help your dog steer clear of this condition. Some pet insurance providers, like Pumpkin, provide optional preventive care benefits that can help cover the costs of the Lyme disease vaccine, as well as a yearly vector-borne disease test. “With proper preventive care, as well as treatment if your dog becomes infected, those ticks don’t have to be so terrifying!” Dr Wooten assures us. “And you and your pooch can enjoy plenty of happy, healthy days ahead.”
Download this helpful Lyme Disease Guide for Dogs