If your dog has ever had a tick bite, you’ve probably worried yourself sick about the possibility of Lyme disease, frantically researching if your dog is going to get it and what the signs and symptoms of the illness are.
Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, is a widespread illness that both pets and people can suffer from if they’ve encountered a troublesome tick bite. Ticks are prevalent worldwide, usually lurking in the long grass during the spring and autumn months to give your pup a nasty bite. If you’re aware that a tick has bitten your dog, it’s good to know all about Lyme disease too, just in case the tick has transmitted the nasty infection.
We’ve got all the information you need, what Lyme disease is, why it happens, the symptoms to look for and what aftercare is needed.
Lyme disease impacts a whole host of species, such as dogs, horses and even people. For some reason however, the illness is practically unheard of in our feline friends. Caused by the twisting, spiralling bacteria borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease is transmitted via a tick bite.
The actual tick isn’t the thing that causes Lyme disease, the ticks are just carriers of the borrelia burgdorferi bacteria which is transmitted through the tick’s bite and into the system, triggering Lyme disease. Once the bacteria enter the bloodstream, it travels throughout the body and can cause various problems in the joints, nervous system and even specific organs such as the kidneys.
As well as this, the disease can make your dog feel generally very unwell, and if left untreated it can have severe implications. This is why the prompt removal of a tick is essential if you spot one.
Ticks are a pesky little parasite that your dog will no doubt face at some point in their life, they’re incredibly common. Easily identifiable once you’ve spotted one with their spider-like shape, but pretty hard to spot initially, ticks use your dog as a host and feed on their blood. Parasites can’t survive without a host, and ticks are no different. They’d probably much prefer to feed on other animals such as birds, mice or voles, but when the opportunity arises, they’re more than willing to feed on you or your dog.
You’re most likely to spot these insects when you’re stroking or brushing your dog, you’ll probably feel an unusual small bump on your dog's skin. Initially, in the tick’s juvenile stages they’ll be pretty small and white in colour, but as they feed on your dog’s blood their body will swell up and darken in colour.
Hundreds of species of ticks are living out there worldwide with the ability to cause disease, but Lyme disease is the most common illness triggered by a tick bite. The species of tick that usually causes Lyme disease is called the ‘deer tick’ or ‘black-legged tick’.
Do you often take your dogs on long walks through fields of thick grass? This is most likely where these creepy crawlies will be lurking, waiting for your pup to pass by so they can latch on. Unlike many other parasites, ticks can’t jump or fly, they only crawl. This makes the long grass the perfect hiding spot to get their target, they wait right at the tips of the plant, grabbing onto your dog’s fur as they pass and crawl onto their skin to find the best place to feed from.
No matter what part of its lifecycle the tick is in, whether they’re larvae, nymphs, or an adult tick, if the tick is harbouring the bacteria in its body, there’s a possibility that it can infect the bitten host.
If the tick is a carrier of the bacteria that can cause Lyme disease, it’ll take about 24-48 hours from the initial time of the bite for the bacteria to be transmitted into your dog’s body. Removing the tick as soon as you spot it is essential to limit the possibility of the bacteria being transmitted.
Lyme disease can present itself in various different ways, and it can differ greatly from dog to dog. Many dogs probably won’t show even the slightest sign of Lyme disease, however, the most common signs to watch out for are:
Painful or swollen joints
Lameness that comes and goes and may shift between one leg to the other
Swollen lymph nodes
Generalised stiffness and discomfort (presenting as a walking on eggshells type of look)
When it comes to people, the most common symptom is a rash at the location of the bite that resembles a bullseye. This will usually occur within 3-30 days of getting the tick bite, and it luckily means the disease can be diagnosed and subsequently treated very quickly.
This symptom is not seen in our dogs however, so you need to keep your eye out for the more subtle symptoms detailed previously if you know your dog has suffered from a recent tick bite.
Typically, Lyme disease diagnosis is based on the symptoms your dog is experiencing (if any), their history of being bitten by a tick and a few blood tests. The two tests that will usually be performed are a C6 test and a Quantitative C6 test.
The initial C6 test works by detecting any antibodies in your dog’s body that are working against a protein called C6, which is a protein exclusive to the borrelia burgdorferi bacteria (the bacteria that causes Lyme disease). Essentially, the presence of these antibodies imply that your dog has had exposure to the bacteria and there is likely to be an active infection of Lyme disease. Usually, these antibodies will emerge approximately 3-5 weeks after the contagious tick bites your dog.
In the event that the C6 test comes back positive (meaning that antibodies were present), the next stage will be to conduct a QC6 test. The aim of this test is to identify how high the antibody levels are, and if they’re high enough to warrant treatment.
Your vet might also decide to perform subsequent blood and urine tests to evaluate your dog’s kidneys and how they’re functioning. If the disease is causing complications to the kidneys, it’s important to get treatment right away as this can cause some severe, if not deadly complications.
Antibiotics for a course of at least 30 days will be administered to treat Lyme disease. Usually, the medication will clear up any symptoms your dog was experiencing quickly, however the infection can sometimes persist. In these cases, prolonged medication and vigilant monitoring from the vets will be necessary.
If treated promptly, the outlook for dogs with Lyme disease is good. Although, if it’s left untreated it can cause severe damage to the kidneys which can often be fatal. In extremely rare cases, kidney damage can intensify and lead to a condition called Lyme nephritis which can be really dangerous for your dog and the prognosis is much worse. As stated though, this is uncommon.
The best way to prevent Lyme disease is through constant maintenance. If you can prevent your dog from getting a tick bite in the first place, then you should be able to prevent any chances of Lyme disease. Keeping up to date with your dog’s parasite medication is the easiest way to stop these irritating little insects appearing where they’re not wanted.
If you often take your dog running through fields of long grass, try and have a constant routine where you check them over for ticks, possibly after every walk or when you’re grooming your dog. With the right maintenance and management, your dog can still enjoy running and jumping through the long grass without you having to worry too much. If you do find a tick, it’s important that you remove it straight away in case it does harbour that nasty Lyme disease bacteria. Quick removal of the tick should prevent Lyme disease.
Once you know the right way to do it, tick removal isn’t actually that hard and will save you a lot of hassle in the long run. To start, you’ll need a tool to remove the tick with, don’t try and use your fingers or household tweezers as this could tear the tick and leave some of the insect attached. This will make it even trickier to remove the tick fully and it could spread infection into the area.
Tick removal tools are readily available at most pet stores, but it’s a good idea to have one in the house at all times just in case a tick does appear - it means you’ll be able to remove it immediately. Part your dog’s fur (you may need a second pair of hands to make this easier) and clasp your tick removal tool around the tick as close to your dog’s skin as you can get. Gently, twist the tool clockwise and the tick should be removed effectively. Dispose of the tick, wash your hands and clean the site of the bite and the tool with some rubbing alcohol.
As we know, ticks are partial to both people and pets, which means that humans can also be infected with Lyme disease. However, you can’t catch Lyme disease directly from your dog if they’re suffering with it, you’ll only get it through the bite of a tick. It also can’t be transmitted from one dog to another.
If a tick appears on your dog, it can be troublesome. However, if it’s removed promptly, then Lyme disease isn’t really something to worry too much about. Routinely check your dog for ticks, and if your dog has had a tick bite recently, clue yourself up on the signs and symptoms of Lyme disease and seek advice from a vet if you suspect any signs of the disease.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.