Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-borne diseases in dogs and puppies. Youngsters appear to be more susceptible so it's important to protect your puppies from Lyme disease especially if you live in a region known to harbor the Lyme disease tick.
Lyme disease was first identified in 1975 when a cluster of childhood arthritis cases were reported in Lyme, Connecticut. It's caused by a spirochete, a type of bacteria named Borrelia burgdorferi, which occurs naturally in white-footed mice and deer. The organism is transmitted to people and dogs by deer ticks.
How Lyme Disease is Transmitted
A number of tick species are able to carry B. Burgdorferi, but the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis is the most effective transmitter of the Lyme bacterium. It's found most commonly in the northeastern, north central, and Pacific Coast states.
Deer ticks mature in a two-year cycle, progressing from egg to larvae, nymph and then adult. Adult ticks prefer to feed on deer, but immature stages feed on white-footed mice and sometimes other warm-blooded animals.
The Lyme bacterium makes its home in deer and mice, which don't become sick, but spread the disease to ticks at any stage when they feed on infected blood. Both the nymph and adult tick are able to transmit the disease to people and dogs, and will make do with such victims when a preferred host isn't available.
Symptoms to Watch For
Human symptoms include a red rash around the tick bite in a kind of "bullseye" pattern. Other early signs involve flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, stiff joints and swollen lymph nodes. The disease can ultimately cause arthritis, lethargy, heart disorders and damage to the nervous system.
The most common sign of Lyme disease in dogs is a sudden (acute) lameness characterized by limping from painful swollen joints of one or more leg. Other times there may be "shifting leg lameness" where the pup limps on different legs as the discomfort comes and goes.
Affected pups may walk with a hunched back from pain, limp, be sensitive to touch, have difficulty breathing, run a fever, refused to eat, and act depressed. More serious problems happen with some dogs and include kidney damage, heart issues or even neurological problems. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Bernese Mountain Dogs seem to be affected more often by kidney complications.
How Is Lyme Disease Diagnosed
Diagnosis is based on the presence of these signs, a history of being in an endemic region, and blood tests as well as urinalysis to look for bacteria, parasites and/or fungi. The fluid in swollen joints may also be tested and Xrays may be indicated. Since arthritis most commonly affects older dogs, a puppy with lameness may be suspected to have Lyme disease. However, some blood tests simply indicate that exposure has taken place and are not a definitive diagnoses because in endemic regions, up to fifty percent of tested dogs will show they have been exposed to the bacterium, yet may show no signs of disease.
A positive reaction to antibiotic therapy is a better confirmation of diagnosis. Pups may refuse to walk, yet within 24 hours of antibiotic treatment appear to be fully recovered. Most dogs show signs of pain relief within three to five days of therapy, and antibiotics are most effective when given soon after onset of the symptoms. Typically the treatment is given for about four weeks. Sadly, some pups continue to show signs of joint pain even after the disease is eliminated, and my require ongoing treatment.
Preventing Lyme Disease
There is a preventative vaccine available for dogs; ask your veterinarian if it is appropriate for your situation. Deer ticks are found in high grass and weeds between the lawn and the woods, and pets and people that roam these areas are more likely to pick up ticks. Use veterinarian-approved tick repellents or insecticides which kills both fleas and ticks.
Prevention also includes removing ticks promptly. The tick must feed 18 to 24 hours before the organisms will be transmitted into the host. When your puppy comes inside, immediately inspect him for ticks, and remove them with tweezers to avoid exposing yourself. People don't become infected from their pets, but you can become sick by touching infected ticks, so wear gloves.
Application of insecticide directly to tick-infested environment is another method of control. However, since the tick's life cycle is two years, one application isn't enough.
People living in endemic areas should wear light-colored clothing, tape socks over pants cuffs, and use insect repellents on clothing and exposed skin when in tick-infested areas. For further information, call the Lyme Disease National Hotline at 1-800-886-LYME.