In recent years, it seems as though bugs and insects are running rampant. From fleas to mosquitoes, bees to ticks, it’s evident that our pets are being bugged… and so are we! Even more concerning than the prevalence of bugs is the risks that these annoying pests carry with them, such as the risk of Lyme disease in dogs. Let’s take a closer look at what it is and how you can keep your pets safe.
Lyme disease is a debilitating illness caused by a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. It is carried through the bloodstream to many different parts of the body, often collecting in the kidneys and the joints.
Unlike many other diseases, Lyme disease doesn’t always present itself or show signs. In fact, approximately 90 to 95% of dogs that are infected do not get sick or show any signs of illness at all. However, it can lead to significant pain and discomfort in others.
In recent years, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has been on the rise. For this reason, it’s more important than ever to familiarize yourself with the signs of Lyme disease, how to prevent infection, and the steps that you should take if you believe that your dog is showing symptoms.
Below, we are going to look at 7 important facts for pet owners relating to Lyme disease in dogs.
This is an overview of what you need to know to identify the disease and seek help when needed. If you have any questions or suspect that your dog may be infected, you should contact your local veterinarian to discuss your concerns and the next steps.
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7 Important Facts That You Should Know About Lyme Disease in Dogs
1. Lyme Disease is Transmitted by Ticks
Unlike many other diseases that your dog may encounter, Lyme disease isn’t transmitted from animal to animal or through feces. Instead, it’s transmitted from being bit by an infected tick. This is important to understand as it gives you a clear idea of where you are at a greater risk of transmission.
Lyme disease in dogs has been recorded in every state across the United States. However, there are some areas where the presence of infected ticks is much higher. This includes the Northeast, upper Midwest and along the Pacific coast. In some high-risk areas, researchers have found that as many as 50% of the ticks in the area have been infected. Additionally, Lyme disease transmissions have been reported in Canada, Europe, and Asia, making it a widespread global concern.
While this may sound worrying, there is a good side to understanding the transmission. Knowing that infected ticks are responsible, we can take the steps necessary to protect our dogs (and ourselves) and lower the risk of infection.
2. The Risk is a Year-Round Problem in Many Areas
With warm weather arriving, the number of ticks that are being reported is once again on the rise. However, don’t let this lull you into a false sense of security during the cooler months. In many areas of the country, ticks can remain active during the winter months including the deer tick which is most associated with Lyme disease.
These ticks are capable of surviving in temperatures just above freezing when there is no snow on the ground. Unlike some other tick varieties, the deer tick will also be active once again if we experience a slight warm-up during the winter months, increasing that risk of transmission once again.
3. You May Be at Risk in Your Own Backyard
The presence of ticks is often associated with wooded areas and activities like camping and hiking. However, experts warn that the habitat of the deer tick extends beyond just the forests. These ticks are also drawn to grasslands or any area in which the grass and weeds have been allowed to grow freely. Therefore, you can encounter tricks in unmaintained fields or even backyard spaces.
4. Signs May Not Show Until 2-5 Months After Exposure
Lyme disease rarely presents itself quickly in dogs. Instead, signs and symptoms can start to show approximately 2 to 5 months after the initial infection. This is why it is important to continually keep an eye on your dog for any signs that something may be ‘off’ from their usual behavior.
Common signs of Lyme disease include:
- Reduced energy, fatigue, and lethargy
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Digestive upset including vomiting or diarrhea
- Increased thirst and water consumption
- Stiffness, discomfort, limping, or general pain when moving
- Joint pain and swelling
- Sensitivity to touch
- Mobility problems and lameness in one or more areas of the body (lameness can be intermittent or move to different areas over time)
If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause kidney problems (up to and including kidney failure), cardiac complications, and neurological effects. In the most serious cases, it can be fatal.
5. Blood Tests Can Be Used for Detection
If you have spent time outdoors in a high-risk area or know that your dog has been bitten by a tick, there are tests that can be performed by your veterinarian to determine if they have been infected. However, it can take 8-9 weeks for these tests to deliver a positive result.
Another option is to bring the tick in to be tested, if you still have a tick that was discovered on you or your dog. These locations will vary from state to state, with some offering free testing while others will offer testing with a fee. This won’t confirm that your dog has been infected. However, if you find that the tick is not carrying Lyme disease, then you know that it couldn’t have transmitted it.
6. Both Your Pets AND Human Family Members Are at Risk
As previously mentioned, Lyme disease is not transmitted from animal to animal. This means that you cannot catch it from your pet and your pet cannot catch it from you. The only way to be infected is through the bite of an infected tick. If, however, your dog does test positive for Lyme disease, you should have any other members of the family tested in your household.
If your dog was bit while out hiking, this means that they were likely other infected ticks around. Anyone that was also in that area is at risk of having been bitten by an infected tick, even if you didn’t notice that they were at the time.
Additionally, when a tick is finished feeding it will drop off and hide until another meal opportunity comes along. If that tick happened to drop off in your yard or home, it could then be picked up by another pet or a human member of the household.
7. Tick Prevention is Key
While there is no fool-proof solution to prevent Lyme disease entirely, there are steps that you can take to lower your dog’s risk and keep them (and you) safe.
- If you are not currently using a tick preventative medication on your dog, contact your veterinarian to discuss your options. In addition to preventative medication, there are also vaccinations available to protect your dog against Lyme disease for those that are high-risk.
- After any walks, hikes, or time spent outdoors in grassy or tree-covered areas, do a thorough check of your dog or body scan to find any ticks that they may have picked up along the way. Focus particularly on the bottoms of their feet, between their toes, in their armpits, in and on their ears, around their eyes and lips, near their anus, and around the base of their tail.
- Remove any ticks that you do find as quickly as possible using proper tick removal techniques (see below).
- Maintain your yard by removing weeds and keeping the grass cut short. An overgrown yard is an invitation for ticks.
How to Remove a Tick Safely
There are many different videos and tutorials circulating the internet describing ‘tricks’ to remove a tick using essential oils or other DIY solutions. However, veterinarians warn that doing so can irritate the tick causing them to release saliva. If the tick is infected with Lyme disease, the release of saliva will increase the chance of your dog being infected. Some solutions will even cause the tick to burrow deeper into the skin, making it harder to remove.
Instead, it is recommended that you remove a tick using either a pair of fine-tipped tweezers or a tick removal tool. These tools are low-cost and can be purchased in many pet stores, veterinary offices and even online, delivered conveniently to your door.
If you see a tick on your dog, these are the recommended steps for safe removal:
- Using your tweezers or tick remover, take hold of the tick as close to the surface of the skin as possible.
- Pull the tick upward in a straight line, avoiding twisting or pulling sideways. The goal is to remove the entire tick, including the mouth portion, not allowing any part to break off and be left behind.
- Place the tick in a small container of alcohol, placing it in a sealed plastic bag (to bring it in for testing) or flushing it down the toilet. A tick should not be crushed in the way that we do many bugs and insects. Doing so could expose you to the contents of the tick itself, increasing your risk of exposure to disease.
- Clean the area where the tick bite occurred with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Monitor your dog in the coming days for any sign of rash or fever. If these symptoms do present, contact your veterinarian.
Have you seen a high incidence of ticks where you live? What steps do you take to keep your dogs safe?
About the Author: Britt Kascjak is a proud pet mom, sharing her heart (and her home) with her “pack” which includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx. She has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. In her free time, she enjoys traveling around the country camping, hiking, and canoeing with her pets.