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Everything You Need to Know About Your Dog and Lyme Disease
Erin Lester/Getty Images

Lyme disease sounds like scurvy’s evil twin: something to do with citrus. But it’s actually a bacterial infection named after Lyme, Connecticut, the city where the first cases were reported in 1975. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about it, including the fact that dogs are prime targets. Last year, more than 300,000 dogs in the U.S. tested positive for Lyme. Here’s everything you need to know to keep your pup healthy.

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What is it?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by curlycue-shaped bacteria swimming through the bloodstream. The bacteria may infect joints, specific organs and/or the nervous system. The American Veterinary Medical Association categorizes it as a zoonotic disease, which means both humans and animals can get it, but your dog can’t give it to you and vice versa. If left untreated in dogs, it can lead to chronic pain, lethargy and in rare cases, death. (No. Thank. You.)

How do dogs get it?

Deer ticks and black-legged ticks (bugs the size of a pinhead) carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Ticks can’t fly, but they hang out in tall grasses and marshy areas just waiting for some poor pup to stroll by. They crawl onto the dog and burrow into the fur toward the skin. They bite, latch on for dear life, suck the dog’s blood and pass along bacteria through their own saliva. (Like mosquitoes but creepier and sneakier.)

Confirmed cases of Lyme disease must be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so we know the upper Midwest and Northeast are most at risk. Smaller zones in the Pacific Northwest and Florida are also susceptible. 

How do I know if my dog has it?

Lyme disease loves pranks. First, symptoms don’t show up right away. Dr. Ernest Ward, DVM at VCA Hospitals, notes that unlike humans, who develop a stylish red rash at the bite site, dogs don’t develop any external bite signs. Only 5 to 10 percent of infected dogs even show symptoms, according to a Cornell University study. Even the more explicit symptoms may not show up for two to five months after a bite.

Maria Reich, a certified canine nutritionist and co-owner of The Pet Health & Nutrition Center, says the biggest symptom is rotating lameness. Unlike other joint issues, pain and stiffness associated with Lyme disease moves throughout the body. For instance, limping on one paw for a few days then limping on another, or a limp that comes and goes, is a strong indicator of Lyme. Fever, sleepiness and refusing to eat are also signs.

The only real way to diagnose Lyme disease is through one of two blood tests: an antibody test or a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Unfortunately, both tests are known to result in false negatives (aka the bacteria are present and harmful but the results say your dog is all good). There’s a small window of time during which Lyme disease antibodies are present in the bloodstream, so if your vet uses the antibody test outside that window, boom! False negative. The PCR test (a type of DNA test) could be incorrect if your vet doesn’t draw a blood sample from a joint directly infected with Lyme disease. Annoying.

Is it treatable?

Yes, big time! Reich mentioned many pet owners hear “Lyme disease” and immediately think, “death.” In chronic cases when Lyme is left untreated, it can lead to fatal kidney or heart failure. However, this is rare.

The key is early detection. It actually takes 12 to 48 hours of full-blown latching (gross) for a tick to transmit Lyme disease. So, if you can pluck those bad boys out right away, your dog probably won’t develop Lyme. (See below for more on prevention.)

Antibiotics are often used to kill the bacteria. Don’t be alarmed if the first antibiotic you try doesn’t totally eradicate the illness. Treating Lyme takes time, and you’ll probably have to use a couple different antibiotics over several months before seeing results.

Ways to prevent Lyme disease

April is Prevent Lyme disease in Dogs Month, but don’t ignore these tips come May! Tick season is here and it might be worse than ever

“Almost every wild canine population on the planet has ticks, and unlike primates they don’t have hands,” says Reich, which means dogs rely on you to spot ticks. Tick checks are unpleasant but necessary. After roaming around outside in tall grass, marshland or woods, comb through your dog’s fur like you’re panning for gold. Hot spots are in and around the ears and mouth, between toes and under the tail. Don’t stop there, though! You never know where these tiny devils are hiding.

If you see a tick, pluck it out with tweezers and either drown it in rubbing alcohol, flush it down the toilet or do what my Minnesotan dad did and burn it alive with a match on the driveway. (Insert surprised face emoji here.) 

Keeping a set of tweezers on your keychain or leash is a great idea. If you spot a tick on your dog during a walk, you can pull it off right then and there. FYI: Ticks crawling on fur haven’t latched yet, so there’s no need to worry about infection at that stage.

There are several Lyme disease vaccinations on the market for dogs that target various strains of the bacteria. The general consensus is unless your dog lives in a high-risk area and is healthy, a vaccination probably isn’t worth it. Talk to your vet about these options, as every dog’s needs are different. 

Tick-repellant powders, sprays and washes also exist, though rubbing chemicals on your pet isn’t ideal. Talk to your vet about their recommendations, as some products are more effective and safer than others. 

For pet parents looking for holistic remedies for tick bites or prevention, Reich’s all-natural products are made with whole foods and herbs. Her Tick Protection tincture has immune stimulating and antibacterial attributes. 

Finally, mow your lawn. The shorter the grass, the fewer the ticks.

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