Lyme Disease in Dogs: What Every Dog Owner Should Know

It is peak tick season and experts are warning that this could be an especially risky year.
By Kristopher S. Sharpe DVM, DACVIM, October 2021
Lyme disease in dogs

While Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the U.S., with 476,000 people diagnosed each year, many pet owners do not know that dogs are also at risk for Lyme disease. Dogs can pick up the ticks while out hiking, walking, and even in your own backyard. It can be frustrating and time-consuming to search for ticks under all that fur. It’s a common misconception that ticks are only a summer problem, but if the temperatures are 50 degrees or warmer, they can be a problem year-round.

If left untreated, dogs with Lyme disease can experience heart complications, joint disease, and permanent nervous system damage. As dog owners take to parks and the woods, the veterinarians at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital explain the health concern of Lyme disease in dogs and how to prevent it. Here is what pet owners should know about Lyme disease and dogs. 

What is Lyme disease?  

Lyme disease is an infection caused by the bacteria borrelia burgdorferi.  Borrelia is transmitted by Ixodes ticks (commonly referred to as deer ticks or black-legged ticks) after attachment to the animal for a minimum of 24-48 hrs. Exposure usually occurs several months after exposure to the infected tick. Black-legged ticks, which are commonly found in the Northeast, can be as small as a poppy seed, and they can be easily missed in the folds behind the ears, between the toes, armpits, around the neck and groin area.

Can My Dog Get Lyme Disease?

Dogs, and rarely cats, can get several different infections including Lyme disease that are transmitted by ticks. Infections are regionally different throughout the country based on geographical changes and the type of tick present to transmit the disease. 

GET THE BARK NEWSLETTER IN YOUR INBOX!

Sign up and get the answers to your questions.

Email Address:

There are helpful tools to determine your regional Lyme risk:

  • Check your state health department’s website to see if Lyme is present in your community
  • Save the tick you pull and have it tested in a lab to see if it was carrying Lyme
  • Take a picture of the tick and send it to the TickEncounter Resource Center where others can identify the tick

What Are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs? 

Most dogs exposed to Lyme disease are able to fight off the infection themselves and do not develop clinical illness. In fact, clinical signs of Lyme disease are observed only in approximately 5-15% of infected canine cases. 

The most common clinical signs associated with Lyme disease infection include mild fever, lethargy, mild lymph node enlargement, joint swelling (arthritis in one or multiple joints), lameness (limping or abnormal walking/running behavior), and discomfort. Rarely dogs can develop a serious form of kidney disease that results in increased drinking, urinating, and decreased appetite. 

  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Joint swelling
  • Limping or Lameness
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

How to treat Lyme disease in dogs

Lyme disease is treated with a longer course of an antibiotic, usually doxycycline. Dogs with common signs of Lyme disease usually respond to treatment within days and antibiotics are continued for up to a total of 28 days. Dogs with the rare kidney form of disease require aggressive treatment and prognosis is guarded.

Preventing Lyme disease and Other Tick-Borne Illnesses

Inspect your dog. After walks through the woods or grassy settings, be sure to check your dog thoroughly. Take a careful look between toes, under the tail, and around their mouth, eyes, and ears (do not forget the inside of the ears). 

Remove ticks immediately. Learn best practices for tick removal. The faster you find and remove a tick, the less likely it is that your dog will contract a secondary illness like Lyme disease from tick bites. To avoid tearing the tick and spreading possible infections into the bite area, use fine-point tweezers. Pull straight upward, in a slow and steady motion to prevent the tick’s mouth from breaking off and remaining embedded in your pet’s skin. If you are unable to remove the tick yourself, consult with your veterinarian. 

Use flea and tick preventives. Most flea and ticks medications don’t prevent ticks from jumping onto or biting your dog, and they kill them once they bite. Since Lyme disease requires 24-48 hours, it prevents the spread of disease. Consult with your veterinarian about the most appropriate product for your dog. 

Keep grass as short as possible and stay on paths. Refrain from walking into grassy patches, if possible. If hiking in the woods, try to keep on hike paths away from high-growth vegetation.  

Get your dog vaccinated for Lyme disease. Vaccination could prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease; however, the vaccine may not be appropriate for some dogs. Discuss the vaccine with your veterinarian to see what is possible for your pet.  

Photo: Adobe Stock

Kristopher S. Sharpe, DVM, DACVIM is Board Certified in Veterinary Internal Medicine, Medical Director, Grand Rapids, BluePearl Pet Hospital.