Lyme disease has been recognized since 1975, when an outbreak was documented in Lyme, Connecticut. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30,000 cases per year are documented, making the disease the most commonly reported vector-borne illness in the United States. This potentially devastating illness, known as a zoonotic disease because it can infect humans and animals, must be reported to the CDC. Here are the facts you need to know about Lyme disease to keep yourself and your pets safe.

Transmission

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium (Borrelia spp.) passed by a bite from the brown deer tick or black legged tick (Ixodes spp.) Although the ticks prefer certain geographical regions, including North Carolina, Lyme disease has been reported in all 50 U.S. states. In some areas, up to 50% of ticks can be infected with Borrelia. Risk of infection is highest in the spring when the immature ticks, called nymphs, and adult ticks are looking for a meal, and people and their pets are outside enjoying the nice weather.

Humans and dogs are not ticks’ primary target, but outdoor activities likely will take you to their preferred habitats, which include forests and grassy or marshy areas near rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Fortunately, an infected tick must be attached to a host for at least 24 hours before it can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, allowing time to find the tick before it causes infection.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Lyme disease signs can take as long as five months to appear after a pet is infected, so prevention is the best option. Although some infected pets may have a subclinical infection with no outward symptoms, the most common disease signs include:

  • Fever
  • Joint or limb lameness (can be shifting or intermittent)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Edema
  • Lethargy
  • Swollen, painful joints
  • Kidney failure

Standard blood work panels cannot diagnose Lyme infection, although they may rule out other causes of the pet’s symptoms. A blood antibody test performed four to six weeks after infection can help confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Antibiotic therapy is the only way to treat Lyme disease, and dogs must be treated for at least a month to resolve the infection. In dogs who experience only joint and limb symptoms, relief often comes quickly. However, in some dogs, the signs may not disappear completely, or may reappear. Pets can also suffer kidney damage and may require hospitalization for additional support.

Prevention

Avoiding ticks is the most effective way to avoid infection with Lyme disease, for people and pets alike. For pets, several prevention options are available, including:

  • Tick repellents 
    • Our veterinary health care team can recommend a chew, spray, or topical preventive product.
    • Products must be used as directed, or a lapse in protection can occur.
  • Lyme vaccine
    • Available since the early 1990s, the Lyme vaccine works by preventing the bacteria transfer between the tick and your dog.
    • It only works before exposure to Borrelia, so vaccination must occur early in life.
    • The typical vaccine schedule is an initial vaccine, followed by a booster 3 weeks later, with yearly vaccine boosters for life.
  •  Other
    • Avoid areas that ticks prefer, such as grassy or marshy areas near water.
    • Check yourself and your dog after each outdoor excursion.
    • Remove a tick promptly by grasping the tick with tweezers as close as possible to the skin and pulling it out firmly but gently.
    • Extra vigilance is important in high-risk areas during spring and fall, the peak infection times. Ticks can hitch a ride on dogs without attaching and drop off inside the home, leaving family members and other pets at risk.

Do not risk Lyme disease and its potential lifelong complications. Use appropriate tick-prevention products for your dog to help protect you and your loved ones. Our veterinarians will help you choose the best tick prevention for your family, administer the Lyme vaccine, and provide testing if you suspect your pet has been exposed. Call us to make an appointment.