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Care.com Interview Series: Pet Care Expert Talks Lyme Disease and Dogs

Faye DesPres
March 8, 2017

How to recognize, treat and prevent Lyme disease in your dog.

Recently, a friend of mine who lives in a rural town on the New York/Massachusetts border learned that her black Laborador Retriever, Shadow, had contracted Lyme disease. My friend often walks her dog in the woods, but she hadn't realized that doing so could be risky for her pet. She was further upset to learn that Shadow could have been vaccinated against Lyme disease, although veterinarians differ on this issue.

  • Lyme disease in dogs is just as common as it is in humans, if not greater.
  • It is  caused by a microscopic organism called Borrelia Burdorferi which is transmitted when an infected deer tick bites the dog or human. The bacteria are normally found in small mammals on which the ticks feed. 
  • Lyme disease is most prevalent in the northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper-Midwest and west coast and ticks are often found in wooded, tall-grass areas. Tick season is spring, summer and fall - or year round if you live in a warm climate.
  • Symptoms of lyme disease in dogs include lethargy, swollen warm joints and refusing to eat.
  • There are vaccinations and tick-preventing pesticides pet owners can get for their dogs. However, it's incredibly important to do a daily check for ticks by running your hands through the dog's fur, checking for bumps.
  • Ticks can be as small as a pinhead and as large as a grape and are usually black, but will look engorged and light gray if they've been well fed.
  • To remove the tick, wear rubber gloves and use tweezers. Flush all ticks down the toilet. Then clean the dog's skin with soap and water. If concerned, call your veternarian. 
  • You may ask your dog walker for insight on tick-removal and request these checks as part of the daily ritual.

Thankfully, Shadow was treated and is doing fine now -- but I decided to find out what dog lovers should know about this serious illness. Knowing what type of pet care you need can help you and your pet. Dr. Joel Kaye, DVM, general medicine services section head at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, shared the following information about Lyme disease in dogs. Read below for the full report.

Care.com: What exactly is Lyme disease, and how is it spread?

Dr. Kaye: Lyme disease is an infectious disease caused by a microscopic organism called Borrelia Burdorferi. This is transmitted when an infected deer tick bites a dog or human. The bacteria are normally found in small mammals on which the ticks feed.

Care.com: Where is Lyme disease most prevalent?

Dr. Kaye: Ninety-five percent of cases are from the northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper-Midwest and west coast.

Care.com: Do dogs in these regions have as much risk for contracting Lyme disease as humans?

Dr. Kaye: The risk of dogs in these regions contracting Lyme disease is equal to or greater than that for humans as dogs are more likely to be running in the woods and tall grasses that ticks attach to.

Care.com: What are the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs, and when should a dog with these symptoms be taken to the vet?

Dr. Kaye: The most common symptoms seen include lameness, which can shift from leg to leg, swollen warm joints, fever, lethargy and anorexia. Longer-term problems may include heart, kidney and nervous system disease. The initial symptoms are usually vague and may be missed. Any dog with a history of tick exposure and clinical signs such as lethargy, fever, or limping should be examined by a veterinarian.

Care.com: How is the disease treated -- and is there a cure?

Dr. Kaye: The disease is treated with antibiotics. The most commonly used is a one-month course of Doxycycline. This will reliably control clinical signs. However, it has been shown that once infected, the bacteria are not completely cleared even though the pet has improved clinically. The disease can potentially be reactivated when the pets immunity is lowered -- such as when ill or being treated with steroids.

Care.com: What can dog lovers do to protect their pets from Lyme disease?

Dr. Kaye: The best thing an owner can do is to utilize a rapid working and effective acaricide, a pesticide that kills mites and ticks. The other important thing owners can do is to check the pet for ticks and remove them on a daily basis. It has been shown that a tick needs to be attached anywhere from 24 to 48 hours or more to transmit Lyme disease.

Care.com: Should dogs be vaccinated?

Dr. Kaye: There are two different types of Lyme vaccinations. Some veterinarians feel these are useful in dogs not previously exposed to the disease. Others feel it is also useful in pets previously exposed. Presently there is an ongoing controversy whether vaccination for Lyme can lead to severe kidney disease. There is no single correct answer, so consult your veterinarian to weigh the pros and cons.

Care.com: Is there a resource where people can learn more about Lyme disease in dogs?

Dr. Kaye: veterinarypartner.com and petplace.com are good resources.

If you live in one of the regions where Lyme disease is prevalent, talk to your veterinarian about ways you can protect your pet. Also, bring your dog in for a visit if he or she shows any of the symptoms listed above that can be attributed to this serious condition. Armed with the right knowledge, you can continue to enjoy a lifetime of happy, healthy walks with your best friend.

Extra research from dogsandticks.com

Faye Rapoport DesPres writes about pet care issues for Care.com and other publications. She has five cats and a website at ourplacetopaws.com.

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