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Lyme Disease in Dogs and Cats

You may have heard about the dangers of Lyme disease in humans, but did you know it can also be a risk to your canine or feline companion? In fact, Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-borne diseases. Learn how to protect your pet and recognize the signs and symptoms of the condition.

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a condition caused by the spiral Borrelia bacteria that affects dogs, cats, and other animals. The disease is spread by ticks in the Ixodes genus, including the deer tick and black-legged tick in North America, the castor bean tick in Europe and the taiga tick in Asia. Ticks pick up the bacteria from host animals such as mice, which is then transferred to your dog or cat when the tick attaches and feeds.

Lyme disease can affect any organ or system in the body, but in dogs and cats is usually affects the joints, and in more serious cases, the kidneys. Symptoms can take 2-5 months to manifest, and many animals may get the disease but never display any symptoms.

Risk factors for Lyme disease
As Lyme disease is only transmitted by ticks, your pet’s risk of contracting the disease is dependent on their exposure to infected ticks. Not all ticks carry the disease, only those in the Ixodes genus, so you may wish to speak to your vet about the ticks prevalent in your area.

Ticks are usually found in grassy, wooded or marshy areas, but not only in the countryside – vet’s say city dogs and cats are also at risk. Keeping your animal indoors will decrease their exposure, as ticks cannot jump or fly. But be aware that ticks may crawl from one animal to another, so if you have a dog that goes for a walk outside, they may bring ticks back to your indoor cat.

Some dog breeds, including Labradors and Golden Retrievers, are affected more severely by Lyme disease. Their risk of initial infection is the same as other breeds, but they are more likely to develop Lyme nephritis, in which the disease causes kidney failure. Owners of these breeds should take particular care to prevent tick exposure and infection.

Protecting your pet from Lyme disease

As the Lyme disease bacteria is transmitted only through tick bites, by reducing your pet’s exposure to ticks, you can reduce you’re their chances of contracting the disease.

Speak to your vet to find out which ticks are common in your area, and if they are carriers of the disease. Your animals will pick up ticks walking in grassy or wooded areas. By avoiding these areas, or by checking your pet for ticks when they return, you can help prevent ticks attaching and feeding.

Medicated tick products are the most effective way of protecting your pet from tick-borne diseases. These either repel ticks before they attach to your dog or cat, or kill on contact, meaning that the tick cannot attach long enough to transfer the bacteria (48 hours for dogs or 18 hours for cats). Tick protection products are available as collars such as Seresto, spot-on topicals like Frontline Plus, or chewables such as Credelio.

Symptoms of Lyme disease
Clinical symptoms of Lyme disease do not tend to develop until 2-5 months after an animal is infected with the disease. And in fact, many animals never develop symptoms – this is particularly true of cats.

The most common symptom that manifests in dogs and cats is lameness due to inflammation of the joints. You may notice that this lameness seems to disappear after 3-4 days, only to return in another leg. For this reason, it is known as ‘shifting lameness’ and is often accompanied by joints that are swollen and warm to the touch.

Other signs of acute Lyme disease in dogs and cats include:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Swollen joints

If the disease is allowed to develop without treatment, Lyme disease can cause more serious damage, including kidney disease, heart disease and problems with the nervous system.

Diagnosing Lyme disease

Diagnosing Lyme disease is not always straightforward. The symptoms are slow to develop (around 2-5 months) and in many cases do not develop at all.

The symptoms that do develop can easily confused with other problems. Lameness in your pet can be caused by injury, arthritis or even cancer. Confusingly, another tick borne-disease known as ehrlichiosis can cause some of the same symptoms as Lyme disease.

To rule out other causes, and to confirm the presence of Lyme disease, your vet will need to run a series of tests. Your pet’s blood will be analysed for signs of infection, including a blood cell count, but they may also need a urine analysis, tests to rule out intestinal parasites, x-rays to detect arthritis, and tests of the joint fluid.

Treatment and prognosis

If vet confirms that your cat of dog has been infected with the Lyme disease bacteria, treatment is fortunately straightforward. Your vet will prescribe a course of antibiotics, usually doxycycline. For pregnant or nursing dogs, puppies and kittens, amoxicillin may be used instead.

The good news is that symptoms, particularly joint inflammation, should begin to improve within 2-4 days. If your pet’s symptoms do not resolve in this time, your vet will need to conduct additional tests to rule out other causes. Animals will need to continue taking the antibiotics for up to 4 weeks to ensure that the infection is cleared.

Although the course of antibiotics will reduce the Borrelia bacteria to a point where it no longer causes disease, it cannot be completely eliminated, and symptoms may return at some stage in the future.

Pets that have more advanced stages of Lyme disease will need a longer and more intensive course of antibiotics. They may need additional treatment to help with specific symptoms such as corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, painkillers, and kidney support.

Lyme disease in humans

Lyme disease can be more serious in humans, but the good news is that you cannot contract it directly from your pet, meaning they cannot pass it on through contact or body fluids. However, if your dog or cat has Lyme disease, a tick biting can pass on the bacteria by biting your pet, then attaching to you. To reduce your risk of infection, use tick repellents and check yourself for ticks after walking in wooded or grassy areas where infected ticks may be present.

Lyme disease FAQs

Is there a vaccination for Lyme disease?
There is currently a Lyme disease vaccine available for dogs, however it may not be suitable for some dogs, including sick or pregnant dogs, or dogs with low immunity. Your vet will let you know if the Lyme disease vaccine is appropriate for your dog.

There is no vaccine available for cats.

If I find a tick on my dog, should I go to the vet?
In order to transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease to your pet, a tick must be attached for 48 hours to a dog, or 18 hours to a cat. Contact your vet if you find a tick that has been attached for longer than this time, if you are unsure of how long the tick has been there, or if you are not confident in removing the tick correctly.

Why hasn’t my vet prescribed painkillers for my pet’s sore joints?
Even if your pet has been diagnosed with Lyme disease, your vet may not prescribe medication for their joint problems. These symptoms tend to improve in 2-4 days once your pet starts treatment. Giving the animal painkillers or anti-inflammatory medication will make it harder for the vet to know if the antibiotics have been effective, and may make it harder to rule out any other causes.

Lyme Disease in Dogs and Cats

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