Lyme disease is one of the most common diseases spread by tick bites. Although the symptoms are rather easily treated with antibiotics, it can cause problems for life.
Ticks attach to both people and pets to feed off their blood. They can remain in place for many days if they are not removed. Ticks are more commonly seen in the spring and autumn and in grassy areas.
Only ticks infected with Lyme disease will spread the disease; they need to be attached for longer than 24 hours to be able to pass it along. Therefore, the sooner you remove any ticks you find on your pet, or use medications that will repel and prevent them biting in the first place, the less chance your dog has of contracting Lyme disease. It is also very important to remove any ticks properly as if you pull them out leaving the head and mouthparts in the skin, Lyme disease can still be transferred.
The symptoms of Lyme disease can be vague and often appear weeks or months after the initial tick bite. However, in most (but not all) cases, there will be a ‘bullseye’ pattern at the site where the tick attached. If you see this pattern, you should take your dog to your vet.
Other symptoms can include skin rashes, lethargy, fever, a poor appetite, and sore and swollen joints. These lead to lameness that can be intermittent and shift between the legs. What's more concerning is that in the longer term, it can cause kidney failure and in rare cases, damage the heart and neurological function.
To make a diagnosis, your vet will take a complete clinical history and will want to know about any ticks you might have found, even if it was months previously. The veterinarian will also examine your dog and pay particular attention to their legs and joints. They will perform blood and urine tests, looking for signs of inflammation and any evidence of kidney damage.
There are specific blood tests for Lyme disease, but these are generally only done after other tests are clear or indicate that it could be a problem. It is also possible to identify the organism in the fluid from swollen joints but this requires specialist analysis.
Treatment for Lyme disease is with antibiotics for at least four weeks. This will resolve the symptoms and within a few days, your dog should be feeling much better. However, it is unfortunately not always possible to clear the infection from the system fully; some dogs will succumb again in the future or develop kidney failure. Therefore, if your dog has been affected, you should always be vigilant for the symptoms recurring.
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is to try to stop ticks attaching to your dog and removing them quickly if they do. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best products to use to achieve this and how to detach ticks safely and effectively. There is also a vaccine available that your vet may recommend, especially if they judge your dog to be at a high risk of infection.
If you are concerned about your dog and their risk of Lyme disease, take them to your veterinarian for a full examination and consultation.