Lyme disease is a bacterial infection of increasing public health importance worldwide. The bug in question is Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted through the bite of the sheep tick, Ixodes Ricinus. Lyme disease in people causes flu-like symptoms and a characteristic rash (called erythema migrans), usually several weeks after the tick bite. About 10% of patients1 , however, can go on to develop serious neurological complications1.
Ticks are present throughout the British Isles, although hotspots can be found in the Scottish Highlands, the South East and the South West of the UK. They thrive in rough grassy heathland and woods, particularly in areas where there are deer. Although Ixodes can also be found in urban areas. Ticks are most active in the summer when they go “questing” for their next meal, and about 5 to 10% of ticks carry the Borrelia bacterium2.
There are precautions you can take before heading out on that day-long hike in the countryside, COVID restrictions allowing, to prevent from yourself getting bitten. But have you thought if you should be protecting your dog as well?
So do dogs get Lyme disease?
Yes. Although, for reasons that we don’t fully understand, they seem to be less susceptible than we are to the infection. Most dogs are asymptomatic, with less than 5-10% of infected dogs developing symptoms3. Even so, those that do develop clinical signs can become very poorly.
The most common symptoms in dogs resemble those in human patients, including fever, lethargy, and poor appetite. Funnily enough, dogs don’t get erythema migrans, so a skin rash in a dog is unlikely to be Lyme disease. However, they frequently get very painful joints, making them reluctant to move or cause them to limp, which is often the reason an owner will take their dog to be checked by the vet.
Rarely, some dogs with Lyme disease can develop severe inflammation of the kidneys, which can be life-threatening. Data from the USA suggests retriever breeds and their crosses seem to be more at risk of this complication4.
Diagnosing Lyme disease in dogs
Lyme disease can be difficult to identify in dogs as there are many other conditions that cause identical symptoms. Let your vet know if you have walked your dog in an area known to be high in ticks or if you have removed ticks from your dog yourself, as this will help them narrow down the list of possible diagnoses. If your vet suspects that your dog has Lyme disease, they will take a blood test to see if your dog has any antibodies against the Borrelia bacterium.
If this test is negative, then Lyme disease can be confidently ruled out. A positive test, however, is not a confirmed diagnosis. A positive antibody test only tells us that the dog has been exposed to the Borrelia bacterium and may be asymptomatic. Your vet cannot be sure it is the cause of your pet’s illness. They may recommend further blood tests, including something called the C6 antibody test, to confirm the diagnosis. A urine sample will also help your vet identify if there is any sign of kidney damage.
Treating Lyme disease in dogs
The treatment of Lyme disease in dogs is similar to that of humans, with a 4-week course of antibiotics, most commonly Doxycycline. Happily, most dogs will improve within 48 hours of starting treatment, and if they don’t, it means it is probably not Lyme disease. Your vet may also decide to prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory to relieve the fever and joint inflammation. Corticosteroids can worsen the symptoms of Lyme disease. If your dog is already taking this medication for another condition, your vet will help you safely wean your pet off them (nb, you should never stop corticosteroid treatment without veterinary advice).
Unfortunately, it is difficult to eliminate the Borrelia bacterium completely with one round of treatment. Your vet may recommend repeating the extended antibiotic course every 3 months. This can sometimes be quite a burden for owners, especially if their pet doesn’t like taking tablets.
Preventing Lyme disease in dogs
The saying goes that prevention is better than cure, and that is particularly true for Lyme disease. The most effective strategy is to avoid areas at times when there are high numbers of questing ticks. If this is not possible, what can you do to protect your dog from tick bites?
You could consider an anti-tick treatment for your dog. There is a huge range of effective products available on prescription in various formulations; including spot-on, tablets and collars. However, sometimes it may require a bit of juggling with their usual flea and worm treatment. It is important to be aware that these products need the tick to attach itself to the dog and start feeding to be effective.
There is, however, emerging evidence that insecticides commonly used on dogs and cats are damaging to the environment. Residues from spot-on formulations have been found in water bodies and shown to cause aquatic insect’s populations to plummet5. As we understand more about this phenomenon, the prescribing patterns for these medications are likely to change. In the meantime, your vet will be able to discuss more environmentally friendly options if this is something that concerns you.
Checking yourself and your dog (and young children, if present) for ticks after every outing is one of the most effective actions you can take. Ticks need to have been attached for around 24-48 hours to transmit the infection. Removing ticks from pets can be fiddly but is made much easier using purpose-made tick-removers, which your vet practice can teach you how to use. Make sure you check between all the toes, in the skin folds and the creases of the ears, all common areas for the critters to lurk.
Can my dog be vaccinated against Lyme disease?
Yes! There is currently no human vaccine for Lyme disease. Still, in the UK we have one vaccine approved for the vaccination of dogs. Whether or not your dog would benefit from the vaccination will very much depend on the risk of your dog becoming exposed. Factors to consider are how active your dog is and if you live in, or regularly travel to tick-endemic areas.
To date, veterinary experts have been unable to form a consensus about the best use of the Lyme disease vaccine, so there are no official guidelines for your vet to follow6. Nevertheless, they will be able to discuss with you whether the Lyme disease vaccine could be beneficial for your pet. It should be added that you would still need to continue with all other preventative measures, even if your pet is vaccinated.
Can I catch Lyme disease from my dog?
If your dog is diagnosed with Lyme disease, you can rest assured that the chances of you or another family member catching Lyme disease from your pet are extremely low. Although there is a theoretical risk that a person could contract Lyme disease from contact with an infected dog’s bodily fluids (urine, for example), there has never been a documented case of this actually happening.
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- Factsheet about Borreliosis. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/borreliosis/facts/factsheet
- Tulloch JSP, Christley RM, Radford AD, et al. A descriptive epidemiological study of the incidence of newly diagnosed Lyme disease cases in a UK primary care cohort, 1998-2016. BMC Infect Dis. 2020;20(1):1-13. doi:10.1186/s12879-020-05018-2
- Levy SA, Magnarelli LA. Relationship between development of antibodies to Borrelia burgdorferi in dogs and the subsequent development of limb/joint borreliosis. J Am Veteirnary Med Asscoiation. 1992;200(3):344-347.
- Borys MA, Kass PH, Mohr FC, Sykes JE. Differences in clinicopathologic variables between Borrelia C6 antigen seroreactive and Borrelia C6 seronegative glomerulopathy in dogs. J Vet Intern Med. 2019;33(5):2096-2104. doi:10.1111/jvim.15586
- Perkins R, Whitehead M, Civil W, Goulson D. Potential role of veterinary flea products in widespread pesticide contamination of English rivers. Sci Total Environ. 2021;755(1):143560. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143560
- Littman MP, Gerber B, Goldstein RE, Labato MA, Lappin MR, Moore GE. ACVIM consensus update on Lyme borreliosis in dogs and cats. J Vet Intern Med. 2018;32(3):887-903. doi:10.1111/jvim.15085