New York currently has the highest number of reported Lyme disease cases in the United States. Lyme disease is a debilitating condition that affects humans and pets, potentially leading to serious health issues. Our Stack Veterinary Hospital team is on a mission to help pet owners to care heroically for their pets, so we provide valuable information about Lyme disease and how you can protect yourself and your four-legged friend.

Historical notes about Lyme disease

Lyme disease has been around for thousands of years. An autopsy on a 5,300-year-old mummy identified the presence of the Lyme disease bacteria, but the United States did not recognize Lyme disease until the 1970s or classify the disease until 1981. Relevant events include:

  • Connecticut — In the early 1970s, a puzzling health issue was affecting children and adults in Lyme, Connecticut, with signs that included swollen joints, paralysis, skin rashes, headaches, and severe chronic fatigue. 
  • Willy Burgdorfer — In 1981, a scientist who was studying Rocky Mountain spotted fever started to look at Lyme disease. He found the deer tick-disease connection and discovered that a bacterium called a spirochete carried by ticks was responsible. The spirochete was named Borrelia burgdorferi after Dr. Burgdorfer.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — In 2012, the CDC included Lyme disease as one of the top 10 notifiable diseases.
  • Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) — Today, Lyme disease is one of the fastest growing vector-borne diseases in the United States. The originating disease primarily affected the East coast, but the geographic prevalence now continues to expand southward and westward and has been detected in all 50 states, according to the CAPC.

Lyme disease transmission in pets and people

B. burgdorferi is transmitted by slow-feeding, hard-shelled deer ticks. Ticks are attracted to body heat, moisture, and vibrations and can locate a host by detecting mammalian breath and body odors. Since they can’t fly or jump, they wait for their hosts on the tips of grasses and shrubs (i.e.,  questing). They hold onto the vegetation with their third and fourth pairs of limbs, and use their first pair of limbs to reach toward people and pets passing by. When a host brushes past, the tick quickly climbs aboard, inserts their feeding tube, and secretes a cement-like substance that keeps them firmly attached while they feed. They also secrete anesthetic compounds in their saliva so their host is unaware they are attached. To transmit Lyme disease, the tick must remain attached for at least 24 to 48 hours.

Lyme disease signs in pets and people

Lyme disease manifests differently in pets and people. 

  • Pets — The most common signs in dogs are fever, swollen lymph nodes, lethargy, and recurrent lameness. In rare cases, Lyme disease can lead to kidney failure and heart complications. Only about 5% to 10% of infected dogs exhibit signs, which typically manifest in about two to five months. The bacteria can infect cats, but clinical disease signs have never been seen in cats.
  • People — About 70% to 80% of infected people develop a bullseye rash that typically appears approximately seven days after the bite. Other signs include fever, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes.

Lyme disease diagnosis in pets

Diagnosing Lyme disease in pets can be difficult, since the signs are non-specific. Potential diagnostic tests that our team may recommend include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC) — A CBC measures your pet’s red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets to help detect infection.
  • Biochemistry profile — This test assesses several body systems to evaluate your pet’s overall health and determine if their kidneys are affected.
  • Urinalysis —Evaluating your pet’s urine can tell us a lot about their overall health.
  • X-rays — If your pet is exhibiting lameness, we may recommend X-rays to evaluate the affected limb.
  • In-house assay — We can perform a quick in-house assay that tests for one B. burgdorferi surface protein. However, these tests can produce false negatives, and we may recommend further diagnostics if we strongly suspect your pet has Lyme disease.
  • Multiplex assay — The Lyme multiplex assay tests for surface proteins on B. burgdorferi at three bacterial life cycle stages. This profile can determine vaccination status, indicate if a pet is recently or chronically infected, and quantify the amount of antibodies being produced. 

Lyme disease treatment in pets

Fortunately, Lyme disease typically responds to a particular antibiotic class. However, treatment usually takes at least four weeks, and in some cases, signs return after treatment is stopped. Supportive care may be necessary in severe cases, especially if the kidneys are damaged.

Lyme disease prevention in pets and people

You can take steps to reduce Lyme disease risk for you and your pet. Recommendations include:

  • Year-round tick prevention — Use tick-prevention products year-round to protect your pet from the disease-carrying parasites.
  • Check for ticks — Check your pet and yourself for ticks after being outside. Ticks can attach anywhere on your pet, but most commonly latch on under the tail, in the groin and armpits, between the toes, in the ears, and under the collar.
  • Remove ticks — If you find a tick on you or your pet, properly remove the tick as soon as possible.
  • Avoid ticks — Avoid walking in tall grassy areas, wooded areas, and marshes, where ticks are commonly found.
  • Vaccinate — Talk to our veterinary team to determine if the canine Lyme vaccine is right for your pet.

These precautions should help protect you and your pet from ticks and the diseases they carry. If you would like your pet vaccinated for Lyme disease, contact our Stack Veterinary Hospital team and schedule an appointment.