Most people think that tick season is just in the spring and summer, but the truth is that ticks are most active from March to mid-May and again mid-August to November. This means that for almost half the year, your dog is at risk for Lyme disease. When untreated, Lyme disease can cause health complications in your dog, including painful arthritis and kidney issues. Here is an overview of Lyme disease in dogs, from causes to treatment and prevention:
Lyme disease is an illness caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. It is not contagious between animals, but rather is transmitted by ticks that attach themselves your dog's skin. The tick then bites your dog and samples its blood before producing Borrelia burgdorferi in its saliva. Because of this, a tick has to be attached to your dog for around 48 hours in order to transmit the disease-causing bacteria.
Fortunately, only one species - the black-legged tick or deer tick - is known to spread the disease. Unfortunately, there are a lot of these ticks living in places we like to take our dogs for walks (like wooded or grassy areas). This means there are a lot of opportunities for infected ticks to jump onto your pup, bite them and transmit Lyme disease.
Signs of Lyme disease include:
- Appetite changes
- Shifting limb lameness (e.g. one leg seems lame, then it changes to a different leg)
- Changes in behavior
- Irregular heartbeat (uncommon)
Pro Tip: Many dogs don't show signs of the disease because their reaction depends on their specific inflammatory response to the bacteria and every dog reacts differently. But some dogs will “show” you where a tick is by scratching and biting at one place on the body.
If you see a tick on your dog, you have two options - take the tick off yourself or take your dog to the vet to remove it. Either way, you'll want the tick removed within 24-36 hours because of the way ticks produce the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria.
If you want to do it yourself, start with tweezers or a tick removal device. Use your fingers to part your dog's fur and place the tweezers around the tick, as close as possible to your dog's skin. Don't twist, jerk, squish, crush, douse or burn the tick as this can force more bacteria out of it. Rather, pull up on it gently and add pressure until the tick lets you pull it away from the skin.
After removing the tick, clean the bite area, as well as your hands, with rubbing alcohol, iodine or soap and water. You now have a choice - either dispose of the tick or bring it to the vet to have it tested for Lyme disease. For the former, do not throw the tick out in the trash or sink because it can easily crawl back out. Instead, make sure you kill the tick using alcohol or flushing it down the toilet.
Even if you successfully remove a tick from your dog, it's still a good idea to bring him or her in to be tested for Lyme disease. Your vet may also want to test for signs of kidney problems, as your dog's immune response against the disease bacteria may cause issues with those organs.
If Lyme disease bacteria is present, your vet will prescribe antibiotics. This is typically an effective treatment but relapses can occur, during which your vet may give your pup non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve the pain. In addition, dogs that test positive for Lyme disease but aren't showing symptoms may be vaccinated again to prevent new infections. Unfortunately, once the bacteria is present, it can stay in your dog's system for extended time. Even with treatment, the disease can continue to affect your dog's body including the joints, skin, nervous system and connective tissue for several months.
Fortunately, there are several medications that you can give to your dog, as well as a vaccine, to prevent Lyme disease. Medications are usually for both ticks and fleas and given monthly. They work to kill ticks, affect their nervous system or prevent them from attaching to your dog's skin. The vaccine works by preventing transmission of the disease from the tick, rather than prompting your dog's immune system to produce antibodies that would kill the disease bacteria. This means there's no major harm to your pup and it won't cause changes to their immune system.
There are also several medicated applications you can use to fight ticks and Lyme disease. For example, medicated shampoos for the bath that can kill ticks on contact but must be applied more often than medicine, usually every two weeks. You can also use tick sprays or powders before heading outdoors with your pup, but these aren't as effective and you'll want to avoid applying it to your dog's face. There are also tick collars, but these tend to only protect your dog's neck and head and also need to be in direct contact with your dog's skin to work.
Another way to prevent Lyme disease is the use of insecticides, which kills ticks outright. In addition, frequent grooming and body checks can help prevent the transmission of the disease. This is particularly important if you and your dog spend a lot of time outdoors. Also, always check your dog for ticks right after a hike or outdoor adventure. Ticks can be found almost anywhere on a dog but especially like to attach to the ears (in and around), the groin, between the toes, the eyelids, the tail and anus.
Pro Tip: If you have a dog with long fur or a double-coat, use a dog hair dryer (or your own on a cool setting) to check for ticks. The dryer will part your dog's hair, allowing you to see his or her skin and any ticks attached.
Taking these measures will greatly decrease the chances that your dog contracts Lyme disease and will allow you two to enjoy the outdoors with more peace of mind.