Most commonly, Lyme disease is transferred to housepets through ticks. Hard shelled deer ticks and similar species pick up disease-causing bacteria from mice and other small animals. If your pet spends time outdoors, it’s possible that an infected tick may hitch a ride on their bodies, and bite them. The tick may transfer the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease.
Are Ticks Everywhere?
In North America, they’re most prevalent in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Coastal areas. If your dog plays in wooded areas, or areas of tall grass, it's especially important to check for ticks. Know that ticks can be carried anywhere dogs and cats mingle. If one animal has ticks, they may carry the ticks into any yard or home.
Incubation: From Tick to Lyme Disease
It can take anywhere from 2-5 months for symptoms of Lyme disease to present themselves. If you find a tick on your pet, remove it, and then be extra aware of your pet’s behaviors and demeanor in the 2-5 months following the incident. Likewise, if you begin to notice common symptoms of unwellness in your pet, think back 2-5 months.
How to Tell if Your Dog Has Lyme Disease
The early symptoms of Lyme disease can present as an average lack of wellness.
According to Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM, the most common symptoms of the disease are lethargy, which may “look like your pet is ‘depressed’; fever, lameness, and a loss of appetite.”
“Your pet may also appear lame,” she says, “if the lameness shifts from one leg to another. ‘Shifting leg lameness’ usually appears as one limb being lame and painful, then resolving, only to have the lameness reappear in another limb.”
“At this point, you may wish to check your dog’s temperature. Normal body temperature for dogs is 100.5 - 102.5F. A fever may also indicate the presence of Lyme Disease.”
If your dog has a combination of these symptoms, it’s time to head to the vet. The veterinarian will likely ask for a history of your pet’s possible exposure to ticks. Beyond that, the vet will want to check your pet’s lymph nodes, which are found all over the body. Swollen lymph nodes are another indication that Lyme could be present. Your vet may also wish to test your pet’s blood to see if the Lyme-causing bacteria is present.
Treatment of Lyme Disease in Pets
According to Crosby, antibiotics are the most common and effective treatment for Lyme disease.
She says, "Courses of antibiotics typically last 2-4 weeks, sometimes longer. Most dogs recover quickly, though some cases may become chronic in nature. In most cases, symptoms diminish very quickly after treatment begins, and your pet should start feeling better. It is important to note that antibiotics don't necessarily clear the bacteria from your pet's body. Recurrences are possible. Dogs and humans alike may live with some degree of the bacteria in their bodies for the long term. However, symptoms can be all but ameliorated through the use of antibiotics. Some cases may also require the administration of pain relievers."
She adds that untreated, Lyme disease can cause other serious illnesses, including kidney, heart, and nerve related diseases; though, the latter two are rare. For example, untreated Lyme could lead to Lyme nephritis, which impairs kidney function and can lead to kidney failure. These related illnesses are treated supportively, while addressing the bacterial cause of Lyme disease. Early detection and treatment of Lyme is critical to prevent more severe, chronic disease.
Tick and Lyme Disease Prevention
There are several proven ways to help your pet avoid contracting Lyme disease, and all methods involve repelling ticks.
The most common anti-tick measure is your standard spot-on treatment. Many of these spot-ons are applied monthly to an area of your pet’s body they can’t reach -- typically between the shoulder blades. The most effective spot-on treatments use the pet’s natural body oils to spread the repellent throughout their body, making their skin and fur inhospitable to ticks (and usually fleas as well).
Other repellents include flea and tick collars, sprays, shampoos, and even sometimes adding ingredients to your pet’s food.
The best method of tick prevention is checking your pet manually after they’ve spent some time outdoors. Run your hands over your pet’s body in a natural, soothing way. You’ll be looking for an irregularity -- a little bump -- that will let you know a tick has adhered itself to your pet. Remember to check between your pet’s toes, as well as in their ears.
The goal is to remove ticks before the 18-hour mark. If you catch them early, and get them off your pet, you have a great chance to prevent the transfer of the bacteria that causes Lyme.
More on Lyme Disease and Ticks
How Do Flea and Tick Treatments Work?
What Do Ticks Look Like?
How to Get Rid of a Tick
Understanding Fleas & Ticks
Flea and Tick Season: When to Use What Treatment
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.