Last year we discussed different ticks and tick-borne diseases. For this blog we will focus specifically on Lyme disease, as it is also a disease that can be transmitted to people.

Lyme disease is caused by a spirochete (a bacterium that has spiral-shaped cells), Borrelia burgdorferi.

How is Lyme disease transmitted to people and pets?

This disease is transmitted through the bite of a tick, the most common tick carrying the disease being the Deer Tick (it is now believed that other tick species may carry the disease, however). Many body systems can be affected, the joints being a common place for the organism to localize.


What are the symptoms?

If you stop by our hospital, our board in our check-out area is dedicated to Lyme disease this month, with pictures showing the characteristic “bullseye” rash that can occur at the site of the bite from the tick in people. This rash can develop within just a few days of being bitten, but can take longer to develop.

In most cases with dogs, however, they do not develop this rash. Symptoms can be vague and can be similar to other diseases, and therefore the disease can be more difficult to detect in animals. In fact, only 5-10% of dogs will develop symptoms.

Some symptoms that can occur include pain, inappetence, fevers, lymph node enlargement, joint swelling, and possibly a shifting-leg lameness/limping. Symptoms can go away and return, and they also can take a long time to show up (in some cases taking over a year to develop; in most cases if they are going to develop, it is within 2-5 months), which can result in widespread disease of the body before a diagnosis is made.


I suspect my dog may have Lyme disease. How can it be diagnosed?

As mentioned, symptoms can be vague and non-distinguishing, but if any of the above symptoms are present and there has been tick exposure, Lyme disease can be suspected. There are numerous tests available to aid in the diagnosis of Lyme disease, including an antibody test (detects presence of antibodies created in response to exposure to the organism), a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test (a DNA test, preferably using fluid from an affected joint), a culture of skin or connective tissue, and a few others.


How is Lyme disease treated?

A long course (minimum of 30 days) of antibiotic treatment (usually doxycycline) is necessary to eliminate Lyme disease. It is important to note, however, that relapse can occur if the disease is not completely eliminated from the body. Antibody titers should be checked pre-treatment and 6 months after treatment.


What can be done to prevent Lyme disease?

Preventing exposure to ticks is one way to prevent Lyme disease. If you take your dog camping, hiking in woods or fields, etc, then it is important to have your dog on a flea AND tick preventive medication. It is also important to check your dog for ticks after any of these activities. Additionally, there is a vaccination for prevention of Lyme disease that is recommended for pets in areas where the disease is prevalent, or that travel to those areas. If you think your pet may be at risk, discuss with your veterinarian vaccination against Lyme disease.

If I find an attached tick on my dog, how do I remove it?

If you find a moving tick on your dog, the tick has not fed, and should be removed immediately and either placed in rubbing alcohol or crushed between two solid surfaces. If the tick is attached to your pet, grasp the tick (ideally with tweezers) near the dog’s skin and pull up firmly. Do not allow your fingers to be exposed to the tick (wear gloves), as the bacterium that causes Lyme disease can pass through a wound/cut in your skin! The sooner a tick is found and removed the better; disease transmission can potentially occur sometime between 12-48 hours, so removal prior to 12 hours is best.

If you are not comfortable removing a tick from your dog, have your dog seen by your veterinarian immediately.