Learn about how Lyme disease affects dogs, including the symptoms they experience, potential treatments, and its impact on their life expectancy.
Can Dogs Get Lyme Disease?
Yes. Just like humans, dogs can get Lyme disease from the bite of an infected black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick (see photo). In fact, dogs are at high risk for tick bites because they spend so much time walking and playing in places where ticks like to live: in the woods, in shrubs, in long grasses, in the yard, in leaf piles and in beach dunes. The rate of canine Lyme disease is on the rise, including in states where Lyme was not previously considered endemic.
When a tick bites a human or a dog, it can transmit borrelia Burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. It can also transmit pathogens that cause other tick-borne diseases, such as babesiosis or ehrlichiosis.
Dogs can also get diseases from other types of ticks. You may have heard of the American dog tick, which is bigger than a black-legged tick (see photo). The American dog tick doesn’t carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, but it can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. If your dog is bitten by a tick, it’s important to know what type of tick it is and the diseases it can carry (see GLA’s Tick Table).
How Long Does It Take for Lyme Disease to Infect Your Dog?
Lyme disease bacteria can be transmitted in a short period during a tick bite, but it may take anywhere from three weeks to several months for symptoms to start showing in dogs. Some dogs never even show signs of illness.
If you think your dog could have contracted Lyme disease—whether they were bitten by a tick, are showing symptoms of Lyme disease, or both—it’s important to see your veterinarian right away. They can do tests for Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. However, similar to humans, Lyme can be difficult to detect in dogs because blood tests only look for antibodies against the Lyme bacteria, not for the bacteria itself, and your dog may not have enough antibody levels to show up on a test even though they do have Lyme. Your veterinarian should therefore make an assessment as to whether your dog could have Lyme disease based on clinical signs. If your dog does have Lyme disease, their kidneys should be checked to see if they have been affected, since Lyme can cause kidney disease in dogs, which can be fatal.
What Are the Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs?
Early symptoms of Lyme disease infection in dogs can include:
- Generalized pain
- Decreased activity
- Loss of appetite
- Fever (often high)
- Lameness—a dog may limp with pain that shifts between legs and comes and goes
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Excessive salivating
As Lyme bacteria move throughout a dog’s body, it can travel to the joints, causing Lyme arthritis; to the kidneys, causing Lyme nephritis; or to the nervous system, causing Lyme neuroborreliosis. Symptoms can include:
- Swollen joints and joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Kidney problems
- Neurological issues, including irritability, aggression, and sensitivity to touch
Does Lyme Disease Shorten a Dog’s Life?
Life expectancy of dogs can decrease due to Lyme disease, particularly if the infection has moved to the kidneys. If Lyme disease is caught early, the veterinarian can monitor the dog’s symptoms and treat the kidneys with antibiotics. If left untreated or unnoticed, Lyme disease can cause chronic symptoms, including:
- Kidney failure and kidney disease
- Cardiac issues
These symptoms can be fatal or can decrease your dog’s quality of life. The earlier Lyme disease is caught and treated, the better chance your dog will have at responding to treatment.
Can Lyme Disease Be Cured in Dogs?
The short answer is yes. If Lyme disease is caught early, your veterinarian will provide antibiotics that will usually cure your dog in four weeks. Lyme disease is generally treated with the antibiotic doxycycline. If your dog is experiencing pain, your veterinarian may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medication. Sometimes, other treatments will be needed, especially if your dog has another tick-borne disease in addition to Lyme.
If Lyme disease is not caught and treated early, your dog can experience chronic Lyme disease symptoms. If your dog has Lyme nephritis, your veterinarian may prescribe other medications or change your dog’s diet. Left untreated, Lyme nephritis can be fatal. The key to effective Lyme disease treatment is early diagnosis.
How Can Pet Owners Prevent Dogs from Getting Lyme Disease?
To protect your dog from getting Lyme disease, you can take some steps to help with tick prevention. You can have your dog get a Lyme vaccine, which your veterinarian can administer annually. Even if your dog is vaccinated against Lyme, though, they are not protected against other tick-borne illnesses, so it’s important to still check for ticks and take other preventative measures.
In addition to a vaccine, there are also over the counter and prescription tick preventatives. These include topical creams and tick collars. These products tend to offer protection against ticks for about three months at a time. Your veterinarian can help determine what the best prevention measure is for your dog.
Another important way to prevent your dog from getting a tick bite is to keep the dog away from areas where ticks tend to live. Ticks like shady, moist areas like woods, shrubs, leaf piles, and stone walls. Keep your lawn cut short, and keep dogs out of the woods and in the center of paths, and out of leaf litter. You might also consider having your yard treated for ticks.
Even if you have taken the previous steps, it’s critical that you check your dog for ticks before they come in the house. Feel for bumps from head to toe. Check the skin and fur of your dog’s entire body, remembering to look in the scalp, inside and outside the ears, around the eyes and eyelids, under the collar, on the back of the neck, under the legs, in the elbows, in the groin area, between the toes, and under the tail. You can also run a lint brush over the dog’s fur to pick up tiny ticks that you don’t see or feel. Ticks can be as small as a poppyseed!
Can My Dog Give Me Lyme Disease?
No. Lyme disease can only be transmitted through the bite of a black-legged tick. A dog cannot pass Lyme disease on to a human, but a tick can move from a dog onto a human, so be sure to check your dog for ticks right before coming in the home or as soon as they come inside. Be careful that you don’t get bit while you are checking your dog for ticks!
The above material is provided for information purposes only. The material (a) is not nor should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor (b) does it necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of Global Lyme Alliance, Inc. or any of its directors, officers, advisors or volunteers. Advice on the testing, treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.