During the summer of 2009, Meg Kiihne was trail running along the rolling hills of Winona, Minnesota, with her Chocolate Lab-German Shepherd mix named LESKI. Having lived in Minnesota for several years, Kiihne knew to keep a watchful eye out for ticks. She dressed in clothing that would make it easier for her to spot a tiny, black dot if one were on her. But finding a small tick in her dog’s thick, black coat proved to be more of a challenge. Despite being vigilant, she never saw any ticks on her furry friend.
Seven months went by before LESKI exhibited signs of being sick. Then, one day, she was no longer eating, was disinterested in play, and was lethargic. “LESKI was around 65 pounds and lost seven pounds within a week,” Kiihne describes. “Suddenly, she wouldn’t get up for me, and I had to call someone to help me take her to the vet.”
Testing revealed LESKI had contracted Lyme disease and a second tick-borne infection called Ehrlichia, but the specific dates the infections were acquired remain unknown. The veterinarian promptly placed LESKI on antibiotics, though Kiihne doesn’t recall which ones. “The vet said he had never seen a dog so sick,” Kiihne says. “But LESKI’s recovery was really smooth. She showed improvements within 24 hours, and was fully back to running within three days.” Now, several years after LESKI’s brush with Lyme disease, she isn’t slowing down anytime soon. At 11 years old, people often think she’s much younger.
Thankfully, LESKI’s story features a happy ending. However, this isn’t the case for every dog that contracts Lyme disease. In some circumstances, your beloved pet could face life-altering or life-threatening health problems; Lyme disease is a serious illness. In March, NPR spoke with two ecologists, Felicia Keesing and Rick Ostfeld, who predicted 2017 would be a particularly brutal year for incidences of Lyme disease. Here’s what you need to know to keep your dog safe.
What is Lyme disease?
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), Lyme disease is caused by a spiral-shaped bacteria, called Borrelia burgdorferi, and it’s transmitted to humans, dogs, horses, and other animals through the bite of an infected tick. Once the bacteria enter the bloodstream, they can disperse throughout a dog’s body, affecting organs, joints, and other tissues.
Dr. Kelley H. Batten, a veterinarian in Jacksonville, Florida, reports dogs are more likely to be infected with Lyme disease in the Northeast and Midwest, but any wooded area, tall grass, or plant life throughout the country creates a possible habitat for ticks. It’s also important to note some environments remain hospitable to ticks year-round, particularly in areas where winter temperatures remain above freezing.
What are the signs of Lyme disease in dogs?
“Sometimes signs appear within days to a few weeks, but sometimes they take months to years to show themselves. And other times, [Lyme disease] is found incidentally on routine screening tests,” says Batten.
When the illness presents itself, Batten lists typical symptoms associated with the disease as lameness, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and weight loss. Additionally, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) mentions fever, loss of appetite, and joint swelling as symptoms as well. In severe cases, some dogs may develop cardiac arrhythmias or kidney failure.
How is Lyme disease diagnosed and treated?
Batten explains, “Many veterinarians carry in-house SNAP tests (testing that only takes a few minutes) for Heartworm disease, Lyme, and two other tick-borne diseases–Anaplasmosis and Ehrlichiosis. A vet can also send out blood to labs to look for antibodies or for PCR tests to look for the organism’s DNA.” Batten states that an infected dog requires antibiotics, like Doxycycline, for 28 days, and, in some cases, longer.
“There are no tests to prove the organism is eradicated,” cautions Batten. “Antibodies stick around after the disease and the organism can be tough to find in blood samples through PCR.” For some dogs, Lyme disease can lead to chronic conditions like arthritis, renal disease, endocarditis, anemia, and possibly autoimmune diseases. Following treatment for Lyme disease, it’s important to keep a close eye on your canine companion and let your vet know of any changes in your pet’s health.
How can I prevent my dog from getting Lyme disease?
Batten recommends the following tips to prevent your four-legged friend from contracting Lyme disease or other tick-borne infections. “Use flea and tick prevention all 12 months of the year, and consult your veterinarian for the one that is right for your family. There are a lot of options on the market, and some work better than others. Also, have your yard treated if you’ve seen ticks, and keep wildlife out of your yard as much as possible. In other words, don’t feed the deer and wildlife. You have to stay diligent and look over your pets after walks and hikes. Early [tick] removal reduces the risk [of contracting Lyme disease].”
Furthermore, the AKC suggests talking to your veterinarian about the prevalence of tick-borne diseases in your area, having your vet conduct a tick check during exams, and testing for tick-borne diseases annually, even if your dog is asymptomatic.
Are there natural treatments available for my dog?
If you’re looking for natural prevention strategies or treatment options for your dog, Batten favors consulting with a veterinarian certified in Chinese herbal medicine. She warns, “Anyone can sell or recommend anything ‘natural,’ but someone with a license on the line has a lot more education and skin in the game.”
Each year, there are hundreds of thousands of reported cases of Lyme disease in dogs across the United States and Canada. By implementing a consistent flea and tick prevention program, you can help protect your pet from enduring a potentially dangerous illness.