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July 1, 2024

Medical Issues

Lyme Disease in Pets

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

It’s finally summertime here in Wisconsin!  I don’t know about you, but this year I felt that summer would never arrive.  Wisconsin summers mean all the great things: beautiful flowers, lush greenery, and fun activities like swimming, boating, and watching baseball games! 

But with the good, comes the bad. For me, summer also means ticks.  In previous blogs, I have talked about ticks and tick preventatives. Today, I am going to talk about Lyme disease.

What is Lyme disease? 

Lyme disease is a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, and it is most commonly carried by the deer tick (also called the black-legged tick).  Although these ticks can carry Lyme disease, not every deer tick is a carrier.  Deer ticks are extremely common in the Midwest and Eastern United States and can also be found in many parts of Canada.

Deer ticks are most commonly found in wooded areas or areas of tall grass where animals like deer can be found.  During the winter, ticks hibernate but tend to come back out with the warmer temperatures of spring.  Ticks live in brush or grass and continually search for their next animal host.

Ticks feast on the blood of their host animals. To transmit Lyme disease, the infected tick bites the host (dog, deer, human, etc.), attaches to it, and eats the host’s blood.  During that bite, the tick transmits the disease to the host.

If a tick bites my dog, will he get Lyme disease?

Not necessarily.  Remember, not all deer ticks carry the bacteria that causes the disease.  If you find a tick attached to your pet, remove it immediately.  You may wish to save the tick in a container to show your veterinarian.

Call your vet clinic to set up an appointment to test your pet for Lyme 4-6 weeks from the date of the tick bite. It will take a month or so to detect the disease. The bacteria need time to get into the bloodstream, and the body needs time to respond. If we test for the disease too soon, we may get a false negative reading.

To test for Lyme disease, we start with a screening test that looks for the 3 most common tick diseases: Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, and Lyme. If your dog tests positive for one of these diseases, we may recommend further testing to determine the best treatment for your pet. 

What are the signs of Lyme disease?

The most common sign of Lyme in dogs is lameness.  Dogs may appear lame on multiple legs, or have a lameness that shifts legs and causes generalized pain. Your dog may look like he is walking on eggshells with rigid and stiff legs.  Lyme also causes fevers, swollen joints, decreased appetite, weight loss, and vomiting.  With pets, we do not typically see the “red bullseye ring” around the bite that people can get from an infected tick.

It can take 2-5 months before the dog starts to show symptoms of Lyme!  Therefore, by the time you can see problems with your dog, he may have been infected for a long time. The disease may not be easy to treat once it has spread throughout his body. 

With severe Lyme disease, dogs can develop a secondary problem called Lyme Nephritis.  With Lyme Nephritis, the disease may cause kidney failure.  A majority of the time, once Lyme disease has reached this stage, it is fatal.

Is there a treatment for Lyme disease?

Yes!  If caught early, we can treat Lyme with an antibiotic.  Many pets improve right away after starting on the medication! Unfortunately, in more advanced cases, we may not be able to treat the permanent changes or kidney damage that have occurred.

How can I protect my dog from Lyme disease?

  • Decrease your pet’s exposure to wooded areas and tall grasses.  While this isn’t always possible, when you are outside with your dog, try to stay on paths or walking trails. This can help to decrease your pet’s exposure to ticks. 
  • Use a flea/tick preventative product.  There are many different flea/tick preventatives. Some are topical and go on the skin, and other products are oral and are ingested. Before you give your pet any tick prevention, ask your vet for the best product for your specific pet.  Some products may not be recommended depending on your pet’s health history. 
  • Vaccinate your pet.  A Lyme vaccination is available for pets that are at higher risk of the disease.  These include hunting dogs, dogs that camp or hike with their families, and dogs that live in wooded or rural areas.  If your dog has exposure to ticks, talk to your vet about this vaccine. Please keep in mind, no vaccine is 100% effective. For that reason, try to decrease exposure and use preventative products as well. 

Ticks definitely are not my favorite part of the warmer Wisconsin weather! They aren’t my dog’s favorite part, either!  But, there are ways to keep your pet protected from bugs and keep them safe during this time of the year. 

Dr. Aili V. Heintz, countrycare animal complexDr. Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.