Lyme disease is the most common vector borne disease in the United States. The CDC estimates that over 300,000 people are infected each year, and Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of cases reported.

Our dogs are also at risk for Lyme disease. Caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, it is transmitted through the bite of an infected tick. If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause heart complications, joint disease, and permanent nervous system damage.

Before you go out in the woods this summer, take a moment to brush up on the basics of Lyme disease in pets and how to prevent it.

Lyme Disease in Pets

In the Northeast, over 90 percent of dogs may test positive for Lyme disease, but only 5 to 10 percent of these will show signs of illness. This is one reason that Lyme disease diagnosis and treatment can be controversial and confusing.

Signs of Lyme disease in pets are shifting weight lameness, fever, lethargy or exercise intolerance, and enlarged lymph nodes. If your dog exhibits any of these signs, have him evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.


Diagnosis can be tricky, since many ticks transmit multiple bacteria. The signs of Lyme disease are similar to those of other diseases as well, so your veterinarian may recommend several blood tests to arrive at a diagnosis.

If your dog has been vaccinated for Lyme disease and tests positive, your veterinarian may need to run another blood test that can differentiate between antibodies in the blood that are generated by the vaccine and those formed by an active Lyme infection.

Veterinarians consider your dog’s lifestyle – especially a history of tick exposure – a positive test, and clinical signs when arriving at a diagnosis of Lyme disease.


If your dog shows signs of Lyme disease, he’ll be treated with a course of antibiotics for 30 days or longer. Although dogs may start to feel better within 48 hours of starting the medication, it’s important to finish the entire course. Other medications may also be indicated for pain and/or kidney disease that sometimes accompanies Lyme disease in pets.

If your dog tests positive for Lyme disease but is not sick, your veterinarian may recommend not treating him. Concerns with over treatment include expense, side effects, and antibiotic resistance. It is generally recommended that your dog be seen for a recheck of antibody levels within 3 to 6 months of the positive test result. Of course, if your dog becomes sick, he should be seen sooner.

A Chronic Disease

Unfortunately, treatment is not always 100 percent effective. Sometimes low levels of bacteria can hide from the immune system, and this may cause a recurrence of symptoms in the future. It’s a good idea to have your dog retested periodically, and to observe her carefully for recurring signs.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

The CDC reports that tick borne diseases are on the rise in the United States. Veterinary medicine offers some options that human medicine does not, when it comes to preventing Lyme disease. A year round schedule of a monthly tick prevention medication can be very effective at keeping ticks and the diseases they carry at bay. Talk to us about whether or not the Lyme vaccine is recommended for your individual dog.

Other measures of prevention include:

  • Avoid tall grasses, brush, and wooded areas where ticks like to hide.
  • Clear brush and debris from your yard regularly.
  • Run your clothes in the dryer immediately after coming in from tick areas.
  • Check your pets (and yourself) regularly for ticks, especially after time outdoors.
  • Remove ticks on your pets right away. Ticks must be attached for 36 to 48 hours in order to transmit the bacterium.

If you have any questions or concerns about Lyme disease in pets or about ticks, please give us a call at Fairview Veterinary Hospital. And, if your pet’s monthly tick prevention has lapsed, now is a great time to get them back on track. We’re here to help!