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Lyme Disease: Prevention and Treatment for Domestic Pets

Golden Retriever dog standing on pathway.

Spring is in the air! This means warm weather, flowers in bloom, and short sleeves. Unfortunately, the season also marks the return of ticks. Ticks are known to carry Lyme disease. And since our pets are constantly playing and lounging in conditions conducive to tick exposure, tick control is vital to ensure your furry companion stays healthy throughout the season.

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis) is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the U.S. It affects both humans and domestic animals (horses, dogs, and occasionally cats) and can cause serious and recurring health issues. Lyme disease is caused by a worm-like, spiral-shaped bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacterium is carried and transmitted through the bite of a tick.

The great majority of Lyme disease transmissions are from the bite of the deer tick, also known as black-legged tick. Regardless of its stage of development, the tick will cause infection if it carries the bacteria in its body. Deer ticks are often found in wooded, grassy, or marshy areas near lakes, rivers, or oceans. Once a tick attaches, it takes 24 to 48 hours to transmit the bacteria.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Domestic Pets

Unlike humans, infested animals do not get redness or a rash around the tick bite. This means it can be very difficult to notice if your pet has had a tick on them. Symptoms may be hidden for several months after the bite. But when they become apparent, symptoms often include:

  • Swollen or painful joints
  • Fever
  • Lameness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • General weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Hesitant to jump, walk, or run
  • Hesitant to get up from resting position
  • Depression
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Stiff walk with an arched back

Sudden lameness is the most common sign of Lyme disease. It often starts in one leg and shifts to another. If Lyme disease is not diagnosed early, the bacteria can spread in the joint tissue and cause Lyme arthritis. In severe cases, issues such as kidney, nervous system, or heart failure can occur making the disease life-threatening for your pet.

Diagnosing Lyme Disease in Domestic Pets

While fever, swollen joints, or lameness are the most common symptoms of Lyme disease, there are several other diseases that may cause these symptoms, as well. You’ll need to provide a thorough history of your dog’s health to help your vet diagnose the illness. Your vet will then use a combination of diagnostics to diagnose your pet, including:

  • Blood chemistry tests
  • Antibody test
  • Complete blood cell count
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
  • Tests and x-rays specific to diagnosing Lyme disease (such as serology)
  • Joint fluid analysis
  • Fecal examination
  • Urinalysis to assess kidney function

It’s worth noting that it can take 4 to 6 weeks for the tests to show up as positive after exposure, which is why it’s important to have different tests done.

Treating Domestic Pet Lyme Disease

Treatment of Lyme disease in domestic pets is usually with antibiotics because the Lyme spirochete is a bacterium. Doxycycline is the most common antibiotic that is prescribed, but your vet may prescribe amoxicillin or azithromycin. The treatment takes a minimum of 4 weeks. However, some cases may require longer antibiotic courses. An anti-inflammatory may also be given if your pet is especially uncomfortable. Improvement in acute joint inflammation should be seen after 3-5 days of antibiotic treatment.

Unfortunately, the infection can hide out in the body for months or years after treatment and then show up at a later date. Proper antibiotic administration, especially closer to the time of infection may reduce the likelihood of chronic consequences.

Preventing Your Pet from Getting Lyme Disease

The easiest way to prevent your pet from getting Lyme disease is to keep them out of areas where ticks are likely to be. Try to avoid swampy, grassy and forest areas on your daily walks. Additionally, check your pet’s coat and skin daily, especially after spending time outdoors. If you find ticks hiding on your pet, use gloves to remove them to avoid transmission to you. You’ll need to make sure you remove all parts of the tick as the head and mouthparts may break off and remain in the skin. Once you remove the tick, call your vet immediately to set up an appointment.

There’s also a wide range of products that kill or prevent tick attachment, including sprays, collars, spot-on, or pills/chewables. These products should only be used under your vet’s supervision. It’s important to note that ticks killed within 48 hours of a blood meal cannot transmit Lyme bacteria to your pet. Annual vaccinations may also be necessary to protect your pet against Lyme disease and maintain immunity.

Talk to a Vet

If you found a tick on your pet’s skin, suspect symptoms of tick exposure, or just want to learn more about Lyme disease prevention, contact Naples Coastal Animal Hospital to schedule an appointment. We can test your four-legged companion for Lyme disease and prescribe treatment to keep them safe and healthy.