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10 things you need to know about Lyme disease in dogs

Lyme disease in dogs
Lyme disease in dogs: What you need to know 03:55

The arrival of springtime means Lyme disease is again resurfacing as a concern on the radar screens of people across the country. So, if you go for a hike or take a walk through long grass, chances are that you'll check yourself for ticks afterward. 

But our pets are constantly lounging and playing in conditions conducive to tick exposure, and how often do we thoroughly check them? If the answer to that question isn't "every day," then experts say it's not enough.

 A woman picking a tick off her dog's fur. Kerkez/iStock

"The most important thing is to stress prevention," explains Dr. Richard Goldstein, chief medical officer at New York City's Animal Medical Center. "This is something that we want to prevent from happening the first time. Once you're infected with these organisms, the chance is you might be infected for life. So, you just have to really go through hair by hair. Look at the paws. Look at the ears. Look around the muzzle, the face. If you do it every day, you're not going to get a big accumulation."

Many nymphs feeding on a dog's ear. idmanjoe/iStock

Occasionally, however, a dog can pick up hundreds of ticks on a single outing and the result can be disgusting, to say the least.

"Sometimes if a dog walks through a place where ticks were molting into nymphs, you might find 200 tiny ticks on your dog," explains Dr. Goldstein. "That's scary when that happens."

But that's not the only scary reality of Lyme that pet owners should heed.

1. It's a year-round threat

It's a common misconception that ticks die in the winter. On the contrary, however, experts say they really just hunker down and wait for the first warm day. So, that makes stopping your pet's tick control medicine during the winter months a risky thing to do.

"There is some resistance, you know, to using medicines," explains Dr. Joe Bloom of Harding Vet. "People don't like the expense. People don't think that it's necessary in the colder months, which I think is really untrue. The magic number is 40 degrees. If the temperature is 40 degrees or higher, even for just a few hours, ticks are wide awake and hungry, looking for a meal. And we pick ticks off dogs in February all the time."

Tick tweezers holding a small brown tick that has just been removed from the fur of a German shepherd dog. Carmen_J/iStock

Dr. Goldstein concurs.

"This is not a seasonal disease," says the internationally recognized Lyme expert. "People used to say, 'Well, I'll deal with it in the summer, but I'm OK in the winter.' All you need is one warm day and the ticks are out. And a lot of people got infected this February, as well as dogs, because we had a lot of warm days. So, year-round diligence, year-round protection for dogs is essential."

2. It's all across the country

Likewise, the nonchalance of the past no longer applies to Lyme's regional characteristics either.

"It used to be kind of a Northeast, Midwest phenomenon," explains Dr. Goldstein, "but when you look at the latest maps, it's all over the country. There's really almost no state without Lyme. We see quite a bit of Lyme in California, in Florida, in the states that used to be relatively low in the upper West Coast. So, yeah, it's virtually everywhere and I believe very strongly that every dog in this country should be tested annually."

A map of canine Lyme Disease cases across the United States in 2017. Companion Animal Parasite Council

If you're wondering why its footprint is increasing, Dr. Goldstein says to look no further than global warming.

"That has to do with the warming climate," he tells CBS News. "It has to do with more deer that can transmit ticks from place to place, more mice. Mice are the main reservoir for Lyme and the mice population has exploded over the last few years -- again, possibly because of mild winters. Global warming is definitely manifesting itself in tick-borne disease in general and we see that in humans as well as in dogs. We see diseases that exist today in areas that we just didn't have five and ten years ago."

3. Most of the tick control products we use don't repel ticks

There are many good options for flea and tick preventatives on the market. There's the Lyme vaccine. There's the more old-school route of tick collars. And there are — perhaps the most commonly used — monthly topical and oral options.

If you're one of the countless pet owners who gives their dog a chewable medication or squirts a preventative oil on their skin, you might be surprised to learn that neither of those tick control tactics actually repel the little bloodsuckers from your dog's body.

A topical flea and tick preventative being applied to a dog. Tatomm/iStock

"Owners come to us and say, 'Well, you know, we're using this flea and stuff, but we still see ticks on our dog,'" recalls Bloom, who practices veterinary medicine in a heavily wooded section of New Jersey. "Most of these flea and tick products will not actually repel the tick, will not keep the tick from walking onto your dog, and will not keep the tick from biting your dog. What they'll do is they'll kill the tick after the tick has bitten."

And it turns out, that's perfectly fine.

A tick on the fur of a shih tzu. MeePoohyaphoto/iStock

"If a tick bites your dog, it can transmit the bacteria, but only if it stays attached," Bloom elaborates. "If the tick is killed with less than 24 hours attachment to your dog, it won't transmit disease."

If you're concerned about ticks hitching a ride into your house, though, there are some products that do physically repel ticks — a tick collar, for example. But Goldstein argues that's not always in your family's best interest.

"If you're thinking about a backyard scenario and there's the kids playing over there and the dogs playing over there," he says, motioning to opposite sides of his office, "do you really want to repel the ticks from the dog and have them climb on the kid? 'Cause we don't have any good real tick control products for children. So maybe sucking up the ticks and killing them is not a bad thing when it's in your backyard."

4. The symptoms aren't necessarily what you'd expect

Without question, the most well-known symptom of Lyme disease in humans is the distinctive, circular bull's-eye rash that many patients develop between a week and a month after they're bitten.

"That rash is great if someone recognizes that because if they get treatment at that point, they will probably not ever get a systemic infection and won't get sick," Goldstein explains. "We don't see that rash in dogs. That's a huge difference. In dogs, the first clinical signs that we see are the pain, fever and lameness, which happen in people only months after the rash."


That means that by the time you spot symptoms of a tick bite on your dog, he or she will likely already be infected.

The other less-than-ideal aspect of canine Lyme symptoms is that they can easily masquerade as something else. One of the most common symptoms dogs exhibit, for example, is joint pain. So, if your pet is suddenly limping, you might simply assume that they've injured their paw or overworked their knee at the park. In reality, however, they could be suffering from Lyme.

One helpful pro tip that can help you differentiate the two is to take note of whether or not your pet's joint pain shifts around. If your dog is consistently lifting the same leg, he's likely just injured it. If, on the other hand, he lifts his front right leg one day and his left hind leg the next, he may have contracted Lyme.

5. Where ticks hide

You probably know that ticks are often picked up in the woods, but they don't have to be. Goldstein says even city dogs contract Lyme. And there are telltale signs about your environment that can help you determine whether or not it poses a risk for tick-borne disease.

"Ticks are very sensitive to dehydration," explains Goldstein. "You don't find them in, for instance, a well-cut lawn. They're always in the high grass and the bush. They'll be in areas that are shaded. The joke is that there's no ticks on the green of a golf course, only in the rough. And that's why the better golfer you are, the less chance you have of having Lyme disease."

Ticks hiding between a dog's toes. showcake/iStock

And with regard to where ticks will hide on dogs, experts say you'll usually find them in the more vascular areas where blood vessels are closest to the surface: the head, the neck, the ears. They also crawl into harder-to-spot places in an attempt to hide from the dog.

"Adult ticks are pretty big, and dogs will see them and try to bite them off if they can," Goldstein said. "So, in between the toes, in the ears, around the neck... places that are hidden even from the dog are where they typically will be found."

6. The best way to remove a tick

Upon discovering a live tick on your pet, your first instinct might be to pull it off immediately. But rather than doing so with your bare hands, experts caution that patience is the safer route.

People removing ticks from a dog's ear with a pair of tweezers. SpeedPhoto/iStock

"The best way to take off every tick is with a sharpened tweezers and to kind of grab them as far down by the head as you can and pull them off," explains Goldstein. "People ideally should wear gloves when they're doing it, if they can, or just be careful. Theoretically, if you have a cut on your finger and you squish a tick and get the blood from the tick, you could get infected with something. So be careful not to do that."

7. Vets don't always treat Lyme disease in dogs

It may seem counterintuitive, but a Lyme diagnosis for your pet doesn't always mean that the vet is going to treat your pet with antibiotics.

"When we find a dog that's positive on a SNAP test for Lyme disease, then we have a conversation with the owners about whether to treat that dog or not," explains Bloom, who says he talks about Lyme with pet owners in his area three to five times a day. "You know, it's unfortunately a very complicated subject and we don't have a great understanding of it. There are not enough studies that have been done to really explain it for us. But in general, if a dog tests positive and doesn't show any clinical signs of Lyme disease — which would be specifically fever, lethargy, inappetence, and stiffness in joints that can change from day to day, moving from one joint to another — we typically leave them alone."

8. Lyme affects some breeds worse than others

There are a couple of notable exceptions to that rule: Labradors and golden retrievers.

There is a deadly manifestation of Lyme disease in dogs, called Lyme nephritis. It's a fatal side effect that causes the animal's kidney to fail, and researchers have a strong suspicion that labs and golden retrievers are predisposed. And because of this, both vets we spoke to agreed that any dogs of these two breeds who test positive for Lyme should be treated with Doxycycline immediately.

An adult golden retriever scratching fleas. Neonci/iStock

9. In dogs, treatment acts fact

If you've ever known anyone who's contracted Lyme disease, then you probably know that treatment can be a long and complicated process in humans. Thankfully, in dogs, it's much simpler.

"Generally, and this is I think a big difference between dogs and people, within a couple of days of starting treatment with Doxycycline, they usually go into remission," Bloom tells CBS News. "And pretty much by the second day of Doxycycline, they feel so much better. They act normally. They have no more fever. They start to eat again and they get better."

10. How to protect your property and your pets

On this last topic, Bloom commented that the majority of flea and tick control medicines on the market work fairly well. He, however, cautioned against using more than one of them in tandem.

"In my opinion, it would be overly cautious to use more than one," he says. "In other words, I wouldn't use both a collar and a topical prevention, or an oral prevention and a topical. I think that's kind of too much poison for the dog."

You can, however, combine one of the topical or oral preventatives with the Lyme vaccine. So there is a way you can further protect your pet from contracting the disease if you live in an area where deer are prevalent. 

A pit bull terrier in a field of long grass and flowers, where ticks could potentially be lurking. Kymberlee Andersen/iStock

If you're looking for an additional way to protect your yard, Bloom recommends having the perimeter sprayed by a pest control company. 

Goldstein also recommended treating the perimeter of your property, but his recommendation came in the form of a physical barrier, rather than one of pesticides. 

"If you're up against woods in your yard, a barrier of wood chips of pebbles will prevent at least the ticks from going across," explains Goldstein. "They can be carried across it by an animal, but at least they won't cross a barrier like that."

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