It's important that you know the basics of lyme disease in dogs to ensure that your best friend remains healthy and safe.
Q. I am concerned about Lyme disease in my dog. How would I know if he has it?
A. Lyme disease is common in some parts of the United States. Lyme is transmitted by ticks, which are plentiful in many regions, such as the Northeast. The classic symptoms of Lyme disease in the dog are fever, lethargy, and lameness. Affected dogs often are unable or unwilling to walk on any or all of their limbs. They seem tired and sore. The signs often come on quite suddenly. The owner may go to bed at night with an apparently normal dog, and find him to be very ill in the morning. Lyme can also show up as a lameness in a single leg. If your dog starts limping, and you are unaware of any incident or accident to explain it, it is possible that he has Lyme disease.
Fortunately, there is a blood test available that will tell you, in approximately ten minutes, if your dog has Lyme. The test proves that he has been exposed to Lyme disease and that it has entered his system. A positive test result, along with symptoms, makes it very likely that your dog suffers from Lyme. Dogs are treated with the antibiotic doxycyline for four weeks after diagnosis. They typically feel better in just a few days.
Unfortunately, there is also some confusion and controversy surrounding Lyme disease in dogs. Infection is very common, but a large percentage of dogs are what are called "asymptomatic carriers" of Lyme. These dogs have been bitten by ticks and infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but it has not made them clinically ill. They test positive, but have no symptoms. There is some disagreement among veterinarians as to how to proceed with these patients.
What I recommend in my practice is further testing. The in-house test that is run is called a SNAP 4dx. The test tells us that Lyme has infected your dog. It does not tell us how severely he is infected. When we have a positive SNAP, we send out a quantitative test called a C6. This gives us a number between 1 and 400, to indicate the severity of the infection. If a dog tests under 30, the current recommendation is not to treat. When a dog tests with a higher level, we discuss the risks/rewards with the owner. A dog with Lyme may not have symptoms now, but could develop them later, particularly in a time of stress. He could develop kidney problems in the future. This is most likely to happen in Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Shelties, although it can happen in any breed. The doxycycline can cause vomiting and can irritate the esophagus. Treatment of the dog who has no symptoms is decided on a case by case basis, and the decision is made by the veterinarian and the owner. A urine sample should also be tested on any Lyme-positive dog. If that dog has protein in his urine, that can be a symptom of Lyme and those dogs should be treated.
Q. How can I protect my dog from Lyme disease?
A. It is always better to try to prevent disease than to try and treat it. The key to preventing Lyme disease is tick control. The best products on the market to protect your dog from tick bites are Advantix and Frontline. They are topical liquids that only need to be applied once a month. Both products may be purchased from your veterinarian. Advantix has the ability to repel ticks. A tick can walk on your dog for a short period of time and the medication will weaken its nervous system and cause the tick to fall off and die. Frontline does not repel ticks, but kills them before they have time to transmit disease to your dog. It takes approximately 24 hours of attachment for a tick to spread Lyme disease to a dog. Regardless of which tick protective product you choose, there is no substitute for checking your dog daily and removing any ticks that you find.
Vaccinating against Lyme is also helpful in preventing disease. Lyme vaccination is not 100% protective, particularly in areas where Lyme is ubiquitous. The Lyme vaccines are typically administered two times initially, given two to three weeks apart. The vaccine is then boosted annually. Lyme vaccination, combined with tick protective medications and regular "tick patrols" provide your dog's best defense against Lyme disease.
Q. Can I get Lyme disease from my dog?
A. You cannot get Lyme disease from your dog. Lyme is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi. The bacteria must spend part of its life in a tick, and the disease can only be spread from a tick bite. Your risk comes from the fact that you and your dog walk in the same areas and are both exposed to ticks. It is best to wear long pants and long sleeved shirts when walking in wooded or grassy areas. Check yourself for ticks in addition to checking your dog.
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