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How to Detect and Treat Lyme Disease in Pets

Dr. Britney Lipps, DVM | Jul 1, 2022

As we head into the summer months and our pets spend more time outdoors, we need to be extra cautious of parasites. Ticks are not just irritating for our fur babies; they can also be extremely dangerous.

As May is Lyme Disease Prevention Month, we're taking this opportunity to share the most common signs of Lyme Disease in pets and ways you can keep your pet tick-free.

Wait, can pets get Lyme Disease?

Believe it or not, wild animals aren’t the only ones susceptible to Lyme Disease. In fact, it is quite common for dogs to pick up ticks if they spend a lot of time outdoors. This poses Lyme Disease as a real risk even to domesticated pets. The good news is that Lyme Disease vaccines and preventative medication exist to prevent this from being a common occurrence.

What is Lyme Disease?

Some Blacklegged ticks (or Deer Ticks) carry and transmit a bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi. If an infected tick bites your pet, the bacteria can get into their bloodstream and travel to different body parts. Lyme disease typically causes problems in specific organs like the kidneys or joints.

Prevalence of Lyme Disease in North America

Lyme disease is common in dogs but rare in cats. Ticks carrying Lyme disease can infect cats, but the disease has never been seen in a cat outside of a laboratory.

Deer ticks and Lyme disease are most common in North America, particularly in the eastern and northern Midwestern states. However, they can also be found in southeastern Canada and are most prevalent in spring and summer, particularly in wet and warm weather.

Infected ticks can also be found in various types of terrain, such as grass, woodland, and sand. Therefore, as the weather warms up and you head out for walks on the beach or hikes in the forest, getting clued up on this disease and taking preventive measures is essential.

Can humans get Lyme Disease from animals?

Lyme disease is zoonotic, which means humans can get it, but only if they are directly bitten by an infected tick. If your pet gets Lyme disease, it will not be contagious, so there is no chance of catching it from them.

Red Labrador lying on tree stump in field of flowers

Signs and symptoms of Lyme Disease

Lyme disease in pets is one of the most common tick-transmitted diseases worldwide. However, not all pets show symptoms, and in many cases, signs do not appear until several months after infection. The most common symptoms are:

  • High temperature
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Lameness in limbs or limping
  • Joint swelling
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Because it can take months for symptoms to appear, the disease can spread rapidly in your pet's body. The longer an animal has Lyme disease, the more likely it will experience kidney complications and even kidney failure, which can be fatal.

Signs of kidney damage include: increased thirst, vomiting, lethargy, and lack of appetite. It is also possible for Lyme disease to affect the heart or nervous system; however, this is rare.

How to prevent Lyme Disease in pets

Like with all diseases, the best treatment for Lyme disease is prevention.

Administer flea and tick prevention

There are several flea and tick prevention products you can give your pet. Some require a prescription from a vet, whereas others are available over the counter. Some come in a tablet or chew, while others are applied topically. They typically give protection for one to three months.

Talk to your vet

As there are various products available, it's best to seek advice from your veterinarian to determine which one is best for your fur baby. There is also a Lyme disease vaccine, which your vet might recommend if you live in an area where ticks are prevalent.

Avoid fields or wooded areas

Another way to minimize the chance of your pet getting ticks is to keep them on their leash when walking them in the forest or through fields of tall grass.

What's more, check your furry friend for ticks whenever you return from a walk. Remove any you find using tweezers; grasp the tick close to your pet's skin and firmly pull it out. Be careful not to twist it as part of the tick may remain. If you're unsure, ask your vet to show you the technique.

How often should a pet be vaccinated for Lyme Disease?

There is no standard rule for how often your pet should be vaccinated against Lyme disease. Instead, it’s best to speak with a trusted veterinarian about whether they recommend your pet gets vaccinated and how often.

A typical Lyme disease vaccine protocol will include the initial vaccine, followed by a booster shot (approximately 2-4 weeks later). Then, your pet will likely need to get recurring booster shots according to the schedule recommended by your vet.

What to do if you suspect Lyme Disease

If you worry that your pet may have got bitten by an infected tick, book an appointment with your veterinarian without delay. They will perform blood tests to check if an infection is present. If so, treatment is usually a course of antibiotics.