Ticks are bloodthirsty parasites, and while ingesting blood, they can pass diseases, such as Lyme disease, to your pet. Our Town & Country Animal Hospital team believes in helping your pet live the longest, happiest life possible, and we share information about Lyme disease and steps you can take to safeguard your four-legged friend. 

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the organism Borrelia burgdorferi. The disease was first identified in Lyme, Connecticut, after children and adults were affected by symptoms including swollen joints, skin rashes, headaches, chronic fatigue, and paralysis. Doctors were unable to diagnose the problem until a scientist, Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, who was studying Rocky Mountain spotted fever, began to investigate the issue. He discovered that a bacterium carried by black-legged ticks caused the disease. Lyme disease is currently the most commonly diagnosed tick-borne disease in dogs and humans.

How does Lyme disease affect pets?

Only about 10% of infected dogs show signs of Lyme disease, but subclinical issues such as multiple joint arthritis and arterial inflammation may affect some pets not showing signs. When signs are present, they are usually nonspecific, including lethargy, depression, fever, swollen lymph nodes, decreased appetite, and shifting-limb lameness. In some cases, the disease progresses to kidney inflammation and dysfunction, leading to signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, increased thirst and urination, and weight loss. These dogs can experience lifelong, and potentially life-threatening, consequences, especially if they aren’t treated promptly. 

Lyme disease in cats is a little controversial. Some practitioners in areas where Lyme is prevalent report treating Lyme-positive cats displaying clinical signs, but these cases are likely rare. In cats experimentally infected with B. burgdorferi, no signs of clinical disease were observed. Our Town & Country Animal Hospital team recommends protecting all pets using a year-round tick preventive since ticks spread other diseases. These preventive products also protect your pet from other harmful parasites. 

How is Lyme disease diagnosed in pets?

Tests used to diagnose Lyme disease include:

  • Blood work — Blood work, such as a complete blood count (CBC) and a biochemistry profile, is used in pets exhibiting signs consistent with Lyme disease to rule out other conditions and check for kidney damage.
  • Urinalysis — Evaluating your pet’s urine can tell us a lot about their health, including their hydration levels and kidney function.
  • Qualitative assay — Our team can run a quick, in-house test to provide a yes or no answer regarding your pet’s Lyme status. However, false negatives are possible, and a positive result does not necessarily mean your pet’s signs are caused by Lyme.
  • Quantitative assay — We can send samples to an outside laboratory to help differentiate between acute and chronic infection. This test also provides information about the strength of a pet’s immune response, including their vaccination status. 
  • X-rays — If your pet exhibits lameness associated with Lyme disease, our team may recommend taking an X-ray of the affected area to determine if arthritis is present.

Dogs who live in areas where Lyme is prevalent should be tested yearly, typically when they undergo heartworm testing. This helps identify infected dogs so they can be monitored for clinical signs and screened for kidney damage. Most experts don’t recommend treating apparently healthy dogs who are Lyme-positive since exposure does not equate to active infection.

How is Lyme disease treated in pets?

Treatment involves antibiotic treatment for at least 30 days. Most pets respond quickly and show improvement within about 48 hours, but treatment should be continued for the entire time prescribed. Lyme can be difficult to clear, and in some cases, signs can return when treatment is stopped. Intense supportive care is needed for pets who have Lyme-associated kidney disease.

Can Lyme disease be prevented in pets?

Preventing Lyme disease is easy and the best way to protect your pet from this condition. Recommendations include:

  • Providing a year-round tick preventive — The best way to protect your pet from ticks and the diseases they spread is to provide a year-round tick preventive. Our team can help you determine the best product for your pet.
  • Checking your pet for ticks — Ticks must remain attached for at least 24 hours to spread Lyme, so removing ticks as soon as possible helps prevent infection. After outings, check your pet and promptly remove any ticks you find. Ticks can attach anywhere on your pet, but common places include around their ears, under their tail, in the armpit and groin regions, and between their toes.
  • Removing ticks correctly — To remove a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers, and grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Steadily pull upward, avoiding twisting or jerking the tick, which can cause them to release pathogens into your pet’s bloodstream. Place the tick in alcohol so you can identify the species, and clean the bite wound using soap and water. Monitor the area for infection.
  • Vaccinating your pet — A Lyme vaccine is available for dogs. Ask our team if your dog is a good candidate for the Lyme vaccine.
  • Creating a tick-safe yard — Employ techniques to help reduce tick populations in your yard. Recommendations include:
    • Clearing tall grasses and brush around your home and at your lawn edges.
    • Keeping your grass cut short.
    • Stacking wood in a dry area.
    • Constructing fences to discourage animals who may harbor ticks, such as deer, raccoons, and stray dogs, from entering your yard. 

Following these recommendations should protect your pet from Lyme disease. Contact our Town & Country Animal Hospital team to discuss what tick-prevention product is best for your four-legged friend.