Everything you ever wanted to know about Lyme Disease
What is Lyme Disease?
Lyme Disease (not Lyme's Disease) is caused by a spirochete called Borrelia.
A spirochete is a type of bacterium. It is transmitted to dogs through the
bite of a tick. Once in the blood stream, it is carried to many parts of the
body. It is especially likely to localize in joints.
It was first thought that only a few types of ticks could transmit this
disease, but now it appears that several common species may be involved.
Can this disease also affect people?
Yes, but people do not get it directly from dogs. They get it from being
bitten by the same ticks that transmit it to dogs. Therefore, preventing
exposure to ticks is important for you and your dog.
How is a dog affected?
Many people having the disease develop a characteristic rash at the site of
the bite within 3 to 30 days. For these people, the disease can be easily
diagnosed at an early stage. However, symptoms of Lyme Disease are more
difficult to detect in animals than in people.
This characteristic rash does not develop in dogs or cats. Because the
other symptoms of the disease may be delayed or not recognized, and because
the symptoms are similar to those of many other diseases, Lyme Disease in
animals is often not considered until other diseases have been eliminated.
Many dogs affected with Lyme Disease are taken to a veterinarian because
they seem to be experiencing generalized pain and have stopped eating.
Affected dogs have been described as if they were "walking on
eggshells." Often these animals have high fevers.
Dogs may also become lame because of the disease. This painful lameness
often appears suddenly and may shift from one leg to another. If untreated, it
may eventually disappear, only to recur weeks or months later.
Some pets are affected with the Lyme Disease organism for over a year
before they finally show symptoms. By this time, the disease may be quite
widespread in the body.
How is Lyme Disease diagnosed?
Dogs with lameness, swollen joints, and fever are suspected of having Lyme
Disease. However, other diseases may also cause these symptoms. There are two
blood tests that may be used for confirmation. The first is an antibody test.
This test does not detect the actual spirochete in the blood but detects the
presence of antibodies created by exposure to the organism.
A test can be falsely negative if the dog is infected but has not yet
formed antibodies, or if it never forms enough antibodies to cause a positive
reaction. This may occur in animals with suppressed immune systems. Some dogs
that have been infected for long periods of time may no longer have enough
antibodies present to be detected by the test. Therefore, a positive test is
meaningful, but a negative is not.
The second test is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. This is also
known as DNA testing. It is very specific and sensitive. However, not all dogs
have the spirochete in their blood cells. If a blood sample is tested, a false
negative may occur. The best sample for testing is the fluid from an affected
How is Lyme Disease treated?
Because the Lyme spirochete is a bacterium, it can be controlled by
antibiotics. However, a lengthy course of treatment is necessary to completely
eradicate the organism.
The initial antibiotic selected to treat an infected pet may not be
effective against the disease, especially if the infection is long-standing.
In this situation, a switch to another antibiotic is often effective.
Occasionally, the initial infection
will recur, or the pet will become reinfected after being bitten by another
How can I prevent my dog from getting Lyme Disease?
The key to prevention is keeping your dog from being exposed to ticks.
Ticks are found in grassy, wooded, and sandy areas. They find their way onto
an animal by climbing to the top of a leaf, blade of grass, or short tree
(especially Cedar trees). Here they wait until their sensors detect a close-by
animal on which to crawl or drop.
Keeping animals from thick underbrush reduces their exposure to ticks. Dogs
should be kept on trails when walked near wooded or tall grass areas.
How do I remove a tick from my dog?
Check your pet immediately after it has been in a tick-infected area. If
you find a tick moving on your pet, the tick has not fed. Remove the tick
promptly and place it in rubbing alcohol or crush it between two solid
If you find a tick attached to your pet, grasp the tick with fine tweezers
or your finger nails near the dog's skin and firmly pull it straight out. You
may need another person to help restrain your dog. Removing the tick quickly
is important since the disease is not transmitted until the tick has fed for
approximately 12 hours. If you crush the tick, do not get the tick's contents,
including blood, on your skin. The spirochete that causes Lyme Disease can
pass through a wound or cut in your skin.
Is there a vaccine that will protect my dog from Lyme
A vaccine is now available for protecting dogs against Lyme Disease. This
vaccine is initially given twice, at two week intervals. Annual revaccination
is also necessary to maintain immunity. The vaccine has been shown to be safe
and very effective. We recommend it for any dog that has exposure to ticks.
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