Lyme Disease in dogs

Dog in the countryside on a walk Lyme disease

Lyme Disease in dogs is a rare chronic inflammatory disease that affects many body systems. Humans and other animals, such as cats, can be infected by Lyme disease too. The vast majority of ticks will not transmit the disease. However, it is only transmitted between animals by ticks. Lyme Disease is a growing concern and owners should be aware of the dangers and remove ticks quickly to minimise the risks. Our vet shares what you need to know in this article.

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Symptoms of Lyme Disease in dogs

One of the difficulties with identifying Lyme Disease infection is that there are a wide range of symptoms which may or may not be exhibited by an infected animal. In addition, some animals show no signs at all. The symptoms may also wax and wane, which makes diagnosis challenging.

Early signs:

  • An infection around the tick bite area (80% of cases). Sometimes this infection has a characteristic appearance called a bullseye rash, where red circular rings appear around the bite. This rash is not always seen with Lyme disease. Tick bites in dogs can also become infected for reasons other than Lyme disease, so this isn’t a reliable method of diagnosing Lyme infection

  • Further skin infections, remote from the tick bite site, seen over the following days or weeks

Later signs:

  • Sore joints leading to a stiff gait and/or recurrent lameness affecting different legs for several days at a time

  • General malaise

  • Loss of appetite

  • Depression

  • Fever

  • Swelling at sites of lymph nodes

  • Drinking and/or urinating more than usual, a sign of associated kidney failure

Cause of Lyme Disease in dogs

Lyme Disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted to dogs by a tick bite. The principle tick species in the UK that transmits the disease is the hard-shelled deer tick, Ixodus ricinus. Infection typically occurs after the tick has been attached to the dog for around 48 hours.

How to help prevent Lyme Disease in your dog

  • If possible, avoid walking your dog in areas where there are high populations of ticks, such as woodland, moorland or city parks, particularly during peak tick activity in the Spring and Autumn

  • Using an effective tick repellent for your dog is crucial to reduce tick bites. Tick repellent products for dogs include tick collars, oral and topical spot-on products. Speak to your vet about the best tick repellent for your dog

  • If you find a tick on your dog, prompt removal is imperative. Use a tick fork to remove it. Tick Twister have a useful video to demonstrate how to use a tick fork. When a tick bites, it inserts its mouth parts through the skin by twisting, therefore a tick must be twisted out of the skin to remove it safely and fully

  • When removing a tick from your dog or cat, it is important not to squeeze or crush the tick, as this can lead to regurgitation of saliva into the bloodstream and increase the risk of disease transmission

  • Please note - once removed, ticks should be killed (not by crushing), or sent in a crush-proof container to Public Health England (PHE) for identification. This information is used to identify potential tick borne disease that may pass to dogs or humans. The submission form can be found here under ‘How to send your ticks to PHE’

  • If a tick is dislodged by accident and the mouth parts remain in the skin, the area should be monitored closely for signs of infection. This is a common reason why your dog’s tick bite might become infected. Tick bite infections in dogs can take several weeks to fully resolve and may require antibiotics and anti-inflammatories

  • Lyme Disease UK has more handy tips for protecting yourself and your pets from contracting the illness

Treatment of Lyme Disease in dogs

Lyme Disease can be difficult to diagnose. Firstly, a blood sample and a urine sample will be taken by your vet. Your dog may also have a swollen or sore joint(s). Fluid from the affected joint(s) may be sampled for analysis. Any skin lesions can be investigated. Sometimes, despite the appropriate tests being performed, a definitive diagnosis cannot be made and your vet may treat your dog presumptively for Lyme Disease.

As a bacterial infection the treatment is antibiotics. A response is normally seen within 7 days of starting treatment. It is very important to complete the whole course of prescribed medication, even after all the signs have resolved, as directed by your vet. If the diagnosis is delayed, however, or the infection is severe, even with a long course of antibiotics some residual clinical signs may remain. There may also be ongoing problems with joints and/or organs, such as the kidneys. The appropriate supportive treatment for these will be advised by your vet. Most cases have an excellent prognosis, particularly if diagnosed and treated promptly.

When to see your physical vet

  • If you notice any of the clinical signs of Lyme Disease above
  • A vaccination is available but its use is currently controversial. Therefore, it is only recommended for use in dogs with a known high risk of exposure - where the disease is endemic or where there are high numbers of ticks

Please note: any human health concerns should be addressed by your GP

Useful links

Quick A-Z of common external parasites in cats and dogs

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