Lyme disease is one of a number of frustratingly common tick-borne diseases that are regarded by both veterinarians and human physicians as stubborn, insidious, and just plain problematic in a number of ways.
An infection caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, Lyme disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected tick and can affect many species, including dogs and humans.
Ticks of the Ixodes species (called black legged ticks or deer ticks) are known to transmit Lyme disease when they attach to a host and feed. Since, the tick must be attached for at least 24-48 hours to transmit Lyme disease, frequent inspection for ticks (and quick removal) can reduce the risk of disease transmission.
Symptoms and Identification
Clinical signs may not appear for several months after a dog is infected with Lyme disease. In fact, many dogs fail to display any obvious clinical signs at all. When signs of infection are noted, they may include the following:
Lethargy (manifested as tiredness or exercise intolerance)
Loss of appetite
Signs may seem to resolve on their own only to reappear later. Lyme disease has also been linked to long-term complications involving the joints, kidneys, heart, and nervous system.
Lyme disease is usually diagnosed based on a medical history that includes the possibility of tick exposure, suspicious clinical signs, and results of diagnostic testing.
Several tests can identify the Borrelia burgdorferi organism in blood or tissues. Many veterinarians test for Lyme disease using an in-hospital SNAP test. SNAP tests are a group of quick, convenient, blood tests that can be performed at your veterinarian’s office. There are various SNAP tests for different purposes:
SNAP Heartworm RT Test: screens for heartworm infection
SNAP 3Dx Test: simultaneously screens for heartworm disease, Lyme disease, and ehrlichiosis (another tick-borne disease that can affect dogs)
SNAP 4Dx Test: simultaneously screens for heartworm disease, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis (also a tick-borne disease that can cause illness in dogs)
SNAP testing is very accurate and is a good way to identify dogs that may be infected with one or more of these diseases. SNAP testing is also very convenient because it uses a very small amount of blood and takes only a few minutes to perform. However, sending blood to an outside laboratory for testing can be every bit as reliable as an in-hospital SNAP test.
In some cases, additional testing may be done to follow up on a positive test result or look for other evidence of illness related to heartworm disease or one of the tick-borne infections. Testing may involve sending additional blood samples to a laboratory for further analysis or performing other diagnostic tests to obtain more information about a dog’s condition.
All breeds of dogs are equally susceptible to this infectious disease.
Treatment of Lyme disease generally consists of administration of antibiotics and (if necessary) other medications to temporarily help control joint pain and other clinical signs. Relapses are not uncommon, so pet owners are advised to monitor their dogs carefully for signs of illness.
Tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease pose a risk to dogs in many areas of the country. Because clinical signs are not always apparent, periodic testing is a good way to identify dogs that have been infected. Even dogs that receive year-round tick prevention products and don’t spend a lot of time outside are at risk for exposure to tick-borne diseases. Testing helps identify dogs that need treatment for one of these infections or an adjustment in the type of tick control being used.
Tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and anaplasmosis (among others) may or may not be prevalent in your area. However, travel habits of owners and their dogs, and changing patterns of tick migration may drive veterinarians to recommend testing for tick-borne diseases.
Several vaccines are available to help prevent lyme disease caused by Borrelia burgdorferi. An initial vaccination is followed by a booster vaccine two to four weeks later (in accordance with label recommendations) and annual boosters, as long as the risk for disease exposure remains.
The Lyme vaccine is not necessarily recommended for all dogs. Ask your veterinarian about the risk of Lyme disease where you live and whether the Lyme vaccine is recommended for your dog.
There are currently no vaccines to protect dogs from other tick-borne diseases, such as ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis. Appropriate tick-control methods combined with periodic testing may be the best ways to help protect dogs from these diseases. Being “tick savvy” can also help protect dogs from Lyme disease exposure. Here are some tips:
- Check dogs (and humans) frequently for ticks. They should be removed promptly.
- Use a reliable method of tick control.
- If possible, avoid tall grass or wooded areas where ticks are likely to hide.
- If owners routinely take dogs camping or walking in wooded/park areas, they should apprise their veterinarians of this possible means of exposure.
This blog was written by McQueen Animal Hospital, an animal clinic (vet hospital/vet clinic) in Brampton committed to providing only the highest level of veterinary care to our beloved pets.