Dog in the countryside on a walk Lyme disease

Lyme Disease in dogs

Lyme Disease is a rare chronic inflammatory disease in dogs that affects many body systems. Humans and other animals, including cats, can be infected by Lyme Disease too. The vast majority of ticks will not transmit the disease. However, it does not pass from one infected animal to another without the help of ticks. Lyme Disease is a growing concern and owners should be aware of the dangers and remove ticks quickly to minimise the risks.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

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Symptoms of Lyme Disease

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 showing no signs at all. The symptoms may also wax and wane making diagnosis challenging.

Early signs:

  • An infection around the tick bite area (80% of cases)
  • 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

Lyme Disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It can be 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.
  • Prescription tick collars, oral and topical products that repel and kill ticks are available from your registered veterinary practice.
  • If you find a tick on your dog, use a tick fork to remove it. Tick Twister have a useful video to demonstrate how to use the 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.
  • Please note - once removed, ticks should be killed (not by crushing) or sent in a crush-proof container to Public Health England for identification. This information is used to identify potential tick borne disease that may pass to dogs or humans. A submission form can be found here.
  • 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. A localised skin reaction may occur, which can take several weeks to fully resolve.
  • Lyme Disease UK has handy tips for protecting yourself and your pets from contracting the illness.

Treatment of Lyme Disease

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), and 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 but it is important to complete the whole course of prescribed medication, even after all the signs have resolved, as directed by your veterinarian. However, if the diagnosis is delayed, 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 veterinarian

  • If you notice any of the clinical signs of Lyme Disease above.
  • A vaccination is available but its use is 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 that any human health concerns should be addressed by your GP.

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