What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, is a bacterial illness that is transmitted by an infected tick to another animal. The spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi carried inside the tick can enter an animal’s bloodstream through its bite. Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria can travel to different parts of the body causing problems in specific organs or organ systems, as well as an overall illness. The ticks that carry this type of bacteria are called “blacklegged” or deer ticks; they are most likely to be found in tall grasses, thick brush, marshes, and woods. Lyme disease occurs in every state in the US, but infection risks vary. Over 95% of cases are from the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast. Risk of transmission is highest during periods when the nymphs (spring) and adults (spring and fall) are actively seeking hosts. Once a tick attaches it takes 1-2 days for it to transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.
What are the symptoms of Lyme disease?
Ninety five percent of dogs infected with the Lyme bacteria remain asymptomatic and do not develop Lyme disease. Even though only a fraction of dogs that carry the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease become ill, pet owners should watch for signs. Symptoms in dogs take 7 to 21 days or even longer following infection to appear. Common symptoms include:
- Painful, swollen joints, possibly causing lameness. Affected dogs have been described as if they were walking on eggshells.
- Anorexia (lack of appetite)
- Swollen lymph nodes
Left untreated, canine Lyme disease can damage the heart, nervous system, and kidneys (Lyme nephropathy or Lyme nephritis.)
How are dogs tested and diagnosed for Lyme disease?
There is no single test that can distinguish clinical canine Lyme disease from a simple Borrelia burgdorferi infection. When diagnosing Lyme disease, veterinarians make several considerations, including exposure to ticks, signs and symptoms consistent with Lyme disease, as well as other potential diseases. For dogs, blood tests for diagnosing Lyme disease include the Snap 4Dx, Accuplex, C6 test, and the Quant C6 (QC6) test. The C6, Accuplex, and 4Dx tests detect the presence of antibodies created by exposure to the Lyme bacteria. The tests can produce a false negative result if the dog is infected but has not yet formed antibodies or doesn’t form enough antibodies to cause a positive reaction. As such, it is recommended to test no earlier than 4 weeks after a tick bite. The Quant C6 (or QC6) test (such as Cornell University’s “Lyme Multiplex” assay) is a follow-up to the other tests; it can be performed to assess the numerical antibody level as confirmation of Lyme disease. Veterinarians may also want to perform a urinalysis before recommending treatment. Dogs shedding protein in their urine are more likely to be actively infected, requiring treatment. One study showed that 40% of dogs diagnosed with Lyme disease were misdiagnosed and had another condition instead.
How is Lyme disease treated?
Because the Lyme spirochete is a bacterium, it can be treated with antibiotics. Lyme disease is almost always treated with oral doxycycline for 4 weeks. Other antibiotics such as amoxicillin and azithromycin are also used. The treatment may be extended if symptoms persist.
There are several natural alternatives to treat Lyme disease.
- Japanese Knotweed Root – reduces inflammation and Lyme symptoms. It can be used in combination with an antibiotic and is considered a “synergist” meaning that both the herb and the drug will each increase its effectiveness.
- Cat’s Claw – supports the immune system.
- Glucosamine Sulfate – This supplement is often used to help with joint pain and inflammation as well as restoring and protecting cartilage.
- Ledum – a homeopathic remedy used to prevent infection, as well as for the treatment of stiff and painful joints.
- Astragalus – a very good immune herb that helps to keep the level of infection low or nonexistent.
How can Lyme disease be prevented?
The key to prevention is minimizing your dog’s exposure to ticks. There are several preventative measures you can take to help prevent Lyme disease in your dog.
- Inspect your dogs and yourself daily for ticks after walks through the woods or grassy settings. Look especially between toes, on lips, around eyes, inside ears, and under the tail.
- Remove ticks as soon as possible. There are several ways to safely remove a tick from your dog. Be sure to destroy the tick by crushing it before disposing of it. If desired, take a photo of the tick to show your veterinarian. Ticks can be submitted for testing to show if they are carrying disease.
- Keep grass mown as short as possible.
- Lyme vaccinations work to prevent transmission of the Borrelia bacteria from the tick to the dog during a tick bite. These vaccines have limitations. They are only 60% to 80% effective in preventing Lyme disease if given prior to the dog being exposed to the disease. They may be less effective in dogs that have already been infected. Some studies indicate that Lyme disease vaccine in dogs may only last about six months, and more studies are needed to confirm these findings. The Lyme vaccine is generally recommended for dogs that live or frequently visit areas known for Lyme disease and high risk of tick exposure. It is never recommended to give a vaccine to a sick dog, even if the dog is sick from Lyme disease. In a study of 1.2 million vaccinated dogs, the Lyme disease vaccine, when used alone, produced more adverse reactions within 3 days than any other canine vaccine. Some studies have shown that vaccination may predispose dogs to inflammation of the kidneys (nephritis) and protein losing nephropathy (PLN) from immune-complex deposition in the kidneys. The vaccine should not be given to dogs living in low-risk areas; some veterinarians question the use of the vaccine for any dog.
- Tick prevention products – there are a variety of products used to lower a dog’s risk of exposure to ticks. Some can be very toxic to pets. I recommend a variety of natural products that are just as effective as the popular conventional tick preventatives.