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Lyme Disease in Dogs: Prevention, Symptoms, and Treatment

August 20, 2018 2 Comments

Everything you need to know about Lyme disease in dogs and the canine lyme vaccination

With ticks and other disease-spreading insects proliferating throughout the United States, dog parents today are increasingly concerned about protecting themselves and their pups from Lyme disease. Lyme disease is commonly transmitted to dogs and humans through bites from blacklegged ticks and can cause serious symptoms and illness.

We partnered with the Cynthia Lopez, editor of Pet Life Today, on this important topic. Here is everything you need to know about Lyme Disease in dogs including preventative care, symptoms, and treatment options.

What is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease, or borreliosis, is a potentially life-threatening inflammatory disease. It is caused by a microscopic organism that lives in the gut of deer ticks, also known as the Eastern blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) and Western blacklegged ticks (Ixodes pacificus). Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States.

In addition to causing serious illness in dogs, Lyme disease can be transmitted to humans through bites from infected blacklegged ticks. It is important to keep in mind that just because you or your dog were bitten by a tick does not mean that you will automatically get Lyme disease. Even so, make sure you or your pets get tested if you do identify a bite from a blacklegged tick.

Ticks are on the Rise

Tick populations are on the rise in many regions of the U.S. The Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, North-Central states (i.e. Wisconsin and Minnesota), and the West Coast (particularly Northern California) have all reported significant rises in ticks and disease-spreading insects.

Ticks proliferate in areas that provide desirable habitation, such as in shady, moist ground cover, as well as aboveground places like grass and shrubbery, brush, and low-lying tree branches. They commonly populate in areas where deer and mice, their preferred hosts, thrive.

If you live in an area likely to have a large tick population, you should take precautions to prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease. But is vaccination the way to go?

Canine Lyme Disease Vaccination

If you’ve had puppies or dogs before, then you’re probably aware of routine puppy vaccination schedules and the types of core vaccines your dog needs. Core vaccines consist of vaccinations for rabies, canine distemper virus, and canine parvovirus, to name a few, all of which offer protection against dangerous and often life-threatening viruses. Core vaccines are strongly encouraged by most veterinarians for puppies and adult dogs.

The Lyme disease vaccine is considered a non-core vaccine. Non-core vaccines are not as widely encouraged by vets, although depending on where you live, you may find that a greater number of vets are suggesting the canine Lyme disease vaccine. Other non-core vaccinations may also be recommended based on risks present in your region.

Research suggests the Lyme disease vaccine is fairly effective (albeit not 100% effective) in preventing Lyme disease in dogs that haven’t previously been exposed to the Lyme organism. It is also important to point out that the Lyme disease vaccine does not prevent other types of tick- or insect-borne infections.

As with any pet vaccine, there are potential side effects of the Lyme disease vaccine. Less than 2% of dogs may experience swelling at the vaccination site, facial swelling, itchiness, hives, and, less commonly, collapse. If you live in an area where ticks and Lyme disease are prevalent, consider asking your vet about the Lyme disease vaccination.

Overall, all vets agree that tick control for dogs should be a priority among dog owners. The canine Lyme vaccine aside, there are many safe and effective steps you can take today to minimize your pup’s risk of tick bites and Lyme disease.

Tick and Lyme Disease Prevention for Dogs

The only way to prevent your dog from contracting Lyme disease with 100% certainty is to prevent your dog from getting tick bites. Naturally, it’s not feasible for families who live in tick-populated areas to keep their dog indoors at all times. Even if it were, there’s no guarantee that a tick won’t make its way into your home by hitching a ride on your pants, shoes or another host.

Ticks are most active between the months of October and March; however, they can be present throughout the year. Frost does not kill adult ticks, and they may become active anytime temperatures are above freezing. Therefore, proper protection requires year-long vigilance.

If your dog doesn’t spend time frolicking around in wooded areas, particularly if you live in a region not considered overly hospitable to blacklegged ticks, your dog is at a far lower risk of contracting Lyme disease. If your dog is at risk of being bitten by blacklegged ticks, then your dog is also at risk for infection.

If your dog does spend time outdoors, you can consider using a tick repellent spray, flea and tick dog collar, or flea and tick preventative ingestible such as NexGard Chewables. You may also consider an over-the-counter flea and tick shampoo, although these often contain harsh ingredients and should only be used sparingly and with caution.

Additionally, make sure to regularly check your dog for ticks, especially when he or she has been playing in heavily wooded or grassy areas. If you want to be extra cautious, thoroughly search your dog for ticks every time he or she comes into your home and immediately remove ticks if discovered (using the appropriate removal methods outlined below). Removing the tick promptly (within 48 hours of tick bite) will decrease the likelihood of the tick transmitting Lyme disease to your pup.

How to Properly Remove a Tick From Your Dog

Using preventative measures to protect your dog against tick bites and Lyme disease is the first step in the battle, but you should also regularly inspect your dog’s skin and fur for ticks. Remove ticks immediately using the proper technique; leaving any part of a tick behind can risk infection.

To remove a tick, you’ll need surgical gloves, a tick removal tool (or tweezers if you don’t have a tick remover), isopropyl alcohol, and a pet-safe antiseptic cream or disinfectant.

To remove a tick using tweezers:

  • Grasp the tick with tweezers as close to your dog’s skin as possible without pinching the skin. 
  • Using a steady motion, carefully pull the tick straight out of the skin. 
  • If you do have a tick remover, use it by: 
  • Pressing the tool gently against your dog’s skin close to the embedded tick. 
  • Slide the notch of the tool under the tick, which will pull it free from your pet’s skin. 

Place the tick in a clean container with isopropyl alcohol (grain alcohol or 180 proof vodka can also work) and mark it with the date. This can aid in testing and identification should your dog begin to show symptoms of Lyme disease.

You should also wash your hands thoroughly and clean both your dog’s wound and your tweezers or tick removal tool with a pet-safe antiseptic or disinfectant. If you don’t want to deal with the tick at all, there’s a pretty neat tool called TickZapper. The tool fully captures and contains the tick without the frustration and possible pain for your dog of removing the tick yourself.

Finally, you’ll want to keep an eye on the wound site for several days, even weeks, to monitor for signs of infection.

Signs and Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs

You should be aware of the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs, particularly if you live in an area with an abundant tick population. If your dog begins to exhibit any combination of the following signs and symptoms, consult with your veterinarian immediately to discuss treatment. Dogs who have contracted Lyme disease may develop the following symptoms up to 2-5 months after infection:

  • Fever
  • Lameness (which may be intermittent or shifting)
  • Lethargy (exercise intolerance, excessive tiredness) 
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stiffness, discomfort, or pain 
  • Swollen joints

The problem with Lyme disease in dogs is two-fold: the symptoms can be difficult to detect, particularly if you’re not watching for them, and if left untreated, Lyme disease can progress to life-threatening kidney failure. This is why prevention is key.

And keep in mind that the “bulls-eye” rash, a familiar indication of tick bites on humans, is not a common symptom for dogs.

Treatment Options for Dogs with Lyme Disease

If you suspect your dog has Lyme disease, contact your veterinarian immediately. Your vet will perform tests to determine if an infection is present and also whether the infection is active. The good news is not every dog who tests positive for Lyme disease will develop clinical illness. For this reason, not every dog that tests positive for the Lyme organism will require treatment.

Doxycycline seems to be the most popular antibiotic for treating Lyme disease in dogs, although medications amoxicillin and erythromycin are also commonly used.

If you have a holistic veterinarian, work with your vet to determine the best approach to treatment. There are several natural approaches to Lyme disease treatment for dogs, including:

  • Ledum palustre 200C, which works best for preventing Lyme infection following a recent bite
  • Aurum arsenicum 200C, a treatment well-suited for diagnosed Lyme disease
  • Borrelia burgdorferi 30C, a remedy made from the Lyme tick (which you’ve stored in a jar) that’s suitable for use when clinical symptoms of Lyme disease are present

These remedies, when used timely and appropriately, can be quite effective at preventing or treating Lyme disease.

No matter where you live, a proactive approach to Lyme disease prevention is one of the best things you can do for your dog’s health. Given the potential side effects of the canine Lyme vaccine and uncertain efficacy, natural approaches to prevention and treatment are the best ways to protect your dog against Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses.

Hope you found all of this information useful! Leave us a message below if you have questions or comments, and please let us know about your own positive (or negative) experiences with tick prevention methods.

DJANGO Dog Blog guest writer Cynthia Lopez

2 Responses

Pet Sitters in Midlothian
Pet Sitters in Midlothian

March 10, 2022

This was a very informative article. I really enjoyed how you tied everything together. Thank you for keeping it relevant and easy-to-read. Hope to see more in the future!


February 10, 2021

I found this very useful. We live in western MA and just got a golden puppy. We use a flea and tick preventative but I still worry about her getting ticks from the woods behind our house.

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