If you live in Connecticut, you’ve almost certainly heard of Lyme disease – you may even know someone who’s had it, or have had it yourself. This disease (also called “Borreliosis” after the bacteria which causes it, Borrelia burgdorferi) is spread by the bites of affected ticks and can cause symptoms such as fever, a rash, joint pain, and nerve pain.
But Lyme disease doesn’t just impact humans – our pets can also be affected. Dr. Nicole Belward, one of Pieper Veterinary’s board-certified Internal Medicine specialists, talks about how to recognize the signs of Lyme disease and how to protect your pets from tick-borne illnesses.
How can I tell if my pet has contracted Lyme disease?
Exposure to Lyme is confirmed by special blood tests. One important thing to understand about Lyme disease is that most dogs (95%) will recover naturally and do not become ill. Of the dogs who develop clinical signs (less than 5%), the most common symptoms are those associated with arthritis, such as lameness (limping/pain which may shift between legs) and fever.
There is a less common syndrome called Lyme nephritis, where the Lyme infection damages the kidneys. This occurs in about 1-2% of patients exposed to Lyme. These patients experience an increase in thirst and urination and may also have vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and lethargy.
Unlike humans, effects on the heart and neurologic system have not been seen in dogs and cats.
If my dog tests positive for Lyme, what treatment is needed?
A positive blood test indicates exposure to the bacteria, but most dogs will clear Lyme disease on their own. A dog with lameness and fever, along with a positive test, should be treated with antibiotics and will typically recover quickly. If a dog tests positive for Lyme exposure but is not showing other symptoms, they should have urine testing done to check for Lyme nephritis (kidney damage). Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that a dog with a positive Lyme test with no signs of arthritis or nephritis should be treated with antibiotics. This topic is still somewhat controversial.
For dogs that show the symptoms of arthritis, lack of treatment will lead to increased joint pain, weakness, and fever. Lyme nephritis left untreated leads to severe complications of kidney damage and high blood pressure, and is often fatal.
Is Lyme disease contagious?
Lyme disease is not directly contagious from dog-to-dog or dog-to-cat. However, a tick that has attached to a dog with Lyme disease can feed, fall off, then climb on to another animal and transmit the disease.
Can my cat contract Lyme disease?
Cats can be exposed to Lyme disease and test positive, but we do not yet have clear evidence that Lyme causes sickness in cats. Nonetheless, we recommend all cats with outdoor exposure be treated with tick preventatives.
Do I still need to watch for ticks/Lyme disease in the winter?
Absolutely. There are many environmental factors that affect the tick population through the winter months, and we do see patients with ticks even in the winter.
How common is Lyme disease in Connecticut?
Connecticut is an endemic (native) region for Lyme disease. In fact, Lyme disease got its name after a population of humans in Old Lyme, CT were found to have the same symptoms that were ultimately linked to the infection from the causative bacteria. The Companion Animal Parasite Council tracks the number of positive Lyme tests, and Connecticut frequently has the highest percentage of positive results in the country.
What’s the best way to protect my pets from Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is transmitted by ticks, and in this area the 'deer tick' is the major carrier. Preventing ticks is the best way to protect your pet. Frequent and thorough tick checks are very important, as is using year-round tick preventatives. Year-round tick prevention is critical as well. There are a variety of oral, topical, and collar options available on the market now, with oral products having some advantages with improved distribution and residual activity. Since Lyme Disease is endemic in Connecticut, Pieper Veterinary recommends that most dogs receive an annual Lyme vaccine.
In regards to tick control around the home, the CDC has excellent information available on their website: https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/prev/in_the_yard.html
Dr. Nicole Belward is an Internal Medicine specialist at Pieper Veterinary. She graduated from Gettysburg College and received her doctorate from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. She completed her residency at the Veterinary Medical Center of Long Island. Dr. Belward has special interests in immune-mediated diseases, hematologic diseases, and infectious diseases, and is a member of the AVMA and ACVIM.