What Every Dog Owner Should Know About Lyme Disease

BY Elizabeth Kowalski, CVT, FFCP

Finding a tick in dogs fur

April is Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs Month, which lines up with the beginning of peak tick season in many areas. Ticks become active as the weather warms and will gladly approach pets for a meal. But, some ticks carry and transmit diseases, which puts our close-to-the-ground friends at high risk. Understanding the risks of tick-borne illnesses can help you protect your pet.

Understand Lyme disease in dogs

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted to dogs, humans, and livestock through tick bites. Cats also can be bitten by ticks, but they seem less susceptible to Lyme disease. The black-legged tick or deer tick (Ixodes species) is the main carrier in North America and can spread the disease as full-grown adults or tiny, hard-to-detect nymphs. Not all deer ticks are infected, but that probability increases in areas where the disease is considered endemic.

Many dogs exposed to Lyme disease have no symptoms, but a smaller percentage develop disease signs and complications, including joint inflammation, lameness, fever, lethargy, and swollen lymph nodes. If this acute stage is mild and goes undetected, chronic disease can develop and cause life-threatening kidney failure. Lyme disease treatment includes a course of antibiotics, plus symptomatic treatment for inflammation, joint pain, or kidney damage.

Lyme disease prevalence and trends

The prevalence of Lyme disease in dogs and humans shifts continuously because of influences including weather patterns, tick populations, and tick migration. Tick populations tend to increase along with local white-tailed deer populations and more ticks are moving south because of large-scale climate changes. Warmer temperatures and increased humidity can lead not only to more ticks, but also to higher tick activity, which puts pets and people in particular areas at increased risk of contracting the disease.

The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), a scientific organization that monitors and predicts disease trends, creates helpful prevalence maps for pet owners and veterinarians to locate the highest risk areas and document how ticks are spreading. The CAPC 2023 Lyme disease prevalence map indicates high risk in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes, which is typical. However, CAPC notes that Lyme-carrying tick ranges keep slowly but surely expanding southward and westward, putting more pets in the high-risk zones.

How to prevent tick bites

Preventing tick bites is the best way to prevent Lyme disease and several other tick-borne diseases that may cause similar illnesses, such as ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis. Strategies to prevent tick bites include:

  • Tick prevention medication — An AAHA-accredited veterinarian can recommend a tick prevention product ideal for your pet’s needs. Most products are designed for topical application and protect your pet for a month.
  • Check for ticks routinely — Thoroughly check pets for ticks after coming in from outside, paying close attention to the head, ears, neck, groin, and feet.
  • Reduce tick activity in your yard — Clear your yard of debris and leaf litter and trim grass short to make your yard less habitable for ticks.
  • Avoid tick-heavy areas — During peak tick season, steer clear of heavily wooded areas and tall grasses where ticks tend to live. Tick season runs from spring through fall in most areas, but if the weather is warm enough, they will remain active through the winter.
How to remove a tick from your dog

Ticks must remain attached to pets for at least 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease, so removing them as soon as possible can reduce the chances of transmission. However, removing a tick incorrectly can increase the probability of disease transmission. Don’t burn or attempt to kill a tick while still in your pet’s skin. Instead, safely pull out the tick with tweezers or a commercial tick removal tool.

To remove ticks with a tool, follow the instructions on the packaging. To remove ticks with tweezers, take the following steps:

  • Grasp — Grasp the tick as close to your pet's skin as possible.
  • Pull — Slowly and steadily pull the tick straight out until you feel it release.
  • Clean — Clean the bite area with a non-alcohol antiseptic solution or simple soap and water.
  • Keep or kill — Place the tick in a sealed container with rubbing alcohol if you want to keep it for identification purposes, or flush it down the toilet. Don’t crush the tick, which can expose you and your pet to diseases it may be carrying.

Being aware of Lyme disease risks and staying on top of your area’s trends can help you prevent tick bites and their associated diseases. Talk to your AAHA-accredited veterinarian about screening tests for tick-borne diseases and effective tick prevention medications.