It gets easy to forget that some of the infectious diseases out there that can affect us, can also affect our pets. One that has significant potential for disease in both humans and our furry family members is lyme disease. Many people are aware of the acute and chronic illnesses associated with lyme disease in people, but lyme disease can cause these issues in pets too! Here’s a rundown on lyme disease, and why it’s so important to keep your pets safe from external parasites like ticks.
What is lyme disease?
Lyme disease is the term given to the illness caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacteria is carried and transferred between infected animals and people by ticks, primarily of the species Ixodes. This bacteria can cause clinical disease in both people and our pets. Lyme disease can occasionally affect cats, but dogs tend to be more commonly affected.
What are the clinical signs of lyme disease?
Dogs may experience a host of signs including joint swelling/pain, lameness (limping), fever, decreased appetite, swollen lymph nodes and lethargy. In severe cases, the kidneys, nervous system, and heart may be affected. Similar signs can develop in humans. Some may be infected after a tick bite, but remain asymptomatic. Humans may also develop classic “bullseye” like red skin lesions, which we do not see in infected pets.
What type of environment do ticks like?
Ticks are a parasite that likes to be opportunistic. Unlike fleas, ticks aren’t major “jumpers”. Rather, ticks like to wait on vegetation and latch on to a warm body walking by. Often ticks like to make a home in tall grass, heavily wooded areas, thick brush and bushes. Ticks prefer a very moderate climate, and are most active in the spring/summer – though ticks have been found year round in the UK.
For up to date information on tick distribution, check out the following resources:
ESCCAP (European Scientific Council for Companion Animal Parasites) Ectoparasite Control:
UK Government Tick Surveillance Scheme:
MSD Animal Health Hub Tick Distribution Map:
Can my pet be tested for lyme disease?
There are antibody tests available for lyme disease from your vet. Typically antibodies will be detectable 4-6 weeks after tick exposure. This is fairly consistent for many tick borne diseases, including Babesiosis, Ehrlichia, and Anaplasma. This in conjunction with classic clinical signs help vets confirm a diagnosis of lyme disease.
What is the treatment for infected pets?
In milder cases, treatment with antibiotics for a minimum of 4 weeks may be enough to treat lyme disease. In more advanced cases, hospitalization with treatments like intravenous fluid support and pain medications/anti-inflammatories are needed. These pets may experience chronic residual clinical signs like joint pain, and in rare cases lyme disease may be fatal.
How can I help prevent lyme disease in my pets?
The good news is that there are steps you can take to help prevent lyme disease from infecting your pet. Prevention, as we say, is the best medicine. There are currently many effective and safe parasite preventatives on the market that protect against ticks. These include both topical (spot on) formulations and oral flavored chewables, typically intended for monthly administration. Preventatives that cover ticks are paired with flea prevention, HOWEVER not all products that prevent fleas ALSO prevent ticks, so it’s essential to check the product label.
Most tick borne diseases take over 24 hours to transmit any diseases via a bite, so checking your pets (and yourself) for ticks after coming in from outdoors is a huge help! This means that any ticks can be promptly removed and decrease the likelihood of disease transmission. Checking once daily particularly in high risk areas/during peak season is a good habit to get into.
Quick note on tick removal:
There are “right” and “wrong” ways to remove a tick! You must grab all the way down where the head/mouth are attached to your pet and grip firmly to ensure removal of the entire tick. Using an object like tweezers or a forcep will provide a good grasp. Failure to remove this may allow more time for disease transmission, and more likely leave an opportunity for significant local irritation/infection.
There is a lyme disease vaccine available for dogs in high risk areas, and whether this is appropriate for your pup should always be discussed with a vet.
- Keep your pet on regular monthly parasite prevention.
- Know your area! Some places are more likely to see higher tick numbers.
- Check your pet for ticks regularly.
- Have questions? Check with a vet!
Dr. Kirsten Ronngren, DVM MRCVS
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