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Lyme disease in pets

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Like humans, pets are also at risk for Lyme disease. In the 1980s, public health professionals became aware of a form of infectious arthritis in the areas of Lyme and Old Lyme, Connecticut. Since then, this illness has been known as Lyme disease. Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted by small ticks of the genus Ixodes. These ticks are often called deer ticks because various species of deer are the main hosts for the adult ticks. Lyme disease is most often transmitted to people and pets by the immature nymphal stage of the tick, which feeds on smaller animals. Lyme disease does not develop in every pet that is bitten by an infected tick, but infection is the first step.

Lyme disease is more common in dogs than in cats. The most common sign is limping that often shifts from leg to leg, called a shifting-leg lameness. Often, dogs suddenly begin to limp; the limp lasts for only a few days, then goes away and comes back days or even weeks later. Affected joints are often painful and may be inflamed and feel warm. Joint problems can eventually develop into chronic arthritis. Other signs of Lyme disease in pets include a fever, swollen lymph nodes, and poor appetite. Over time, Lyme disease can cause kidney problems, or (more rarely) heart or nervous system disorders.

Lyme disease is always a possible cause of a shifting-leg lameness in dogs that live in or travel to a tick-infested area. Your veterinarian will need to take blood tests to confirm the diagnosis, although these tests are not 100 percent accurate. X-rays or other blood tests may also be necessary to check your pet's overall health and to rule out other problems.

Lyme disease in pets can usually be easily treated with a variety of common antibiotics. Several preventive measures are available. Vaccination against Lyme disease is often recommended for pets that live in areas where deer ticks are common.

One of the best ways to prevent Lyme disease in your pet is to check your pet closely for ticks after it has been outside. Because ticks usually have to be attached for about 24 hours before they transmit the infection, early tick removal can prevent the disease. However, deer ticks are very small (about the size of the head of a pin), so they are easy to miss. Your vet can show you how to recognize ticks and how to properly remove and dispose of them. He or she can also recommend a commercial flea product that kills or repels ticks.

Q&A

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a form of infectious arthritis caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi.  The disease was first identified in the 1980s around the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme, Connecticut. 


How do pets get this disease?

The Lyme bacterium is transmitted by small ticks that are commonly referred to as “deer ticks” because adults frequently feed on deer.  Lyme disease is most often transmitted to people and pets by the immature nymphal stage of this tick, which feeds on smaller animals in and around brush and tall grass. 


What type of illness does Lyme disease cause in pets?

In dogs, Lyme disease usually causes “shifting-leg lameness” as the bacteria affects different joints.  Over time, Lyme disease may also cause kidney problems, or (more rarely) heart or nervous system disorders.


How can I tell if my pet has Lyme disease?

Shifting-leg lameness in dogs that live in or travel to tick-infested areas should raise suspicion of Lyme disease.  Your veterinarian will need to take blood tests to confirm the diagnosis, although these tests are not 100% accurate. 


How is this disease treated and prevented in pets?

Lyme disease can usually be easily treated with a variety of common antibiotics.  One of the best ways to prevent Lyme disease is to regularly check your pet for ticks, and to regularly apply flea-control products that kill or repel ticks.  Your vet may recommend vaccination against Lyme disease if you live in a high-risk area. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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