Lyme Disease Symptoms in Dogs

lyme disease dogs symptomsA dog bitten by a tick carrying the Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato bacteria has the same, if not more risk of infection with Lyme disease as we do. Lyme disease symptoms in dogs can be a little harder to spot however and so the infection may become more widely disseminated before appropriate treatment is given, leading to possible permanent damage such as lameness. The early signs of Lyme disease in dogs are similar to those in humans, but our dogs may not be able to communicate such symptoms quite so effectively as we can. As such, knowing your dog’s personality, general mood, appetite, and energy levels puts you in the best position to appreciate any alteration that may be due to infection with Lyme disease.

It’s Easy to Miss Early Canine Lyme Disease Symptoms

Dogs are at a disadvantage when bitten by ticks as their fur can hide the ticks and prolong their exposure to infectious spirochaetes. The initial characteristic rash of Lyme disease, erythema migrans, is also often difficult to detect in dogs due to their fur. Many of those with dogs may also fail to notice signs of a fever, lethargy, or loss of appetite, especially where a dog is old or simply appears worn out by a long weekend of hiking and countryside rambling. Mild swelling of the joints can also occur in the early stages of Lyme disease in dogs, and may be followed by arthritis and lameness either acutely or in the long-term where the condition goes untreated. Not all dogs with Lyme disease develop lameness however, and this should not be treated as the only diagnostic sign of the disease.


Checking Your Dog’s Lymph Nodes

In a number of dogs a generalized enlargement of lymph nodes occurs which may be detected by running your hands under the dog’s neck or just under the dog’s shoulders. Skin problems, heart irregularities, neurological issues, and kidney dysfunction are quite rare but may occur in a small number of dogs infected with Lyme disease. Symptoms can arise after a few weeks or even after six months following the initial tick bite, which can make it particularly difficult, as in humans, to diagnose Lyme disease. An added difficulty in dogs is that many display positive titers for Lyme disease bacteria without any symptoms of infection, thus making it extremely precarious to make a diagnosis of Lyme disease on the basis of blood tests alone.

Rates of Lyme Disease in Dogs in the US

Just as Lyme disease cases in humans are rising, through both increasing exposure and, most likely, better diagnosis and reporting of the infection, the same is true in dogs. In some areas of Connecticut, where Lyme disease was originally identified and named, it is thought that almost every dog has had some degree of exposure to the disease. In other areas the presence of infected ticks is very rare and few dogs are at risk of the disease. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are two key areas where an abundance of host animals (deer) and high levels of ticks make it increasingly likely that a dog will become infected following a tick bite.

tick bite dogAre Lyme Disease Symptoms in Dogs Actually Signs of Another Illness?

In areas where ticks are less common and infection rates in ticks are lower, the symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs may not indicate the presence of infection at all but could simply be evidence of another condition. Arthritis is the common feature of Lyme disease in dogs in North America and many dogs will begin to suffer this as they age anyway, with hip dysplasia and joint deformities more common in some breeds over others (German Shepherds, and Border Collies, for example) and in dogs that are overweight. Smaller dogs are also at an increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis, which commonly develops at around five or six years of age and can cause symptoms very similar to Lyme disease in dogs such as fever, joint pain, enlarged lymph nodes, and even kidney problems.

Co-Infections of Lyme Disease in Dogs

Additionally, symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs that can masquerade as other conditions include abnormal gait and lameness which may actually indicate leukoencephalomyelopathy and canine neuroaxonal dystrophy. These two diseases are, for the most part, only prevalent in rottweilers but may be mistaken for Lyme disease, or even cervical disc disease leading to a delay in treatment. Symptoms usually start out being fairly mild and progress over time to cause more pain and co-ordination problems for the dog.


Key times to watch for the development of Lyme disease are in fall, as an infected tick bite is most likely to have occurred during the spring and summer months (May through to August). Ticks can be active at any time when the temperature is above freezing however, so even winter walks in damp, shady woodland or grassy meadows poses a risk of incurring a tick bite. Checking a dog daily for tick bites is a good idea, as infection only usually occurs if a tick is in place for between 24 and 48 hours. Even after 48 hours the risk of a dog developing the condition is still very low with canine Lyme disease thought to occur in only around 10% of cases of exposure to the spirochaetes. Acute development of lameness is the key indicator of Lyme disease symptoms in dogs, but is not always present and may only occur for a brief period.

Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs

Whilst not all symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are actually caused by the infection it is important for those caring for dogs to realize that their companion animals can contract the disease. Many people continue to consider Lyme disease as a problem only for dogs living in rural areas who spend considerable amounts of time outside, but city-dwelling dogs are also at risk with wooded parks, shrubbery, long grass, and even vegetable gardens providing havens for infected ticks to lurk unseen. Tick awareness is increasing and many more people are checking themselves and other family members for the presence of ticks after spending time outdoors. Unfortunately, awareness that Lyme disease also affects dogs has not increased at the same rate and many people still fail to check their dog’s skin for ticks or assume that a hard lump on the skin is just a skin tag and requires no further inspection. It is in this way that dogs are at increased risk of Lyme disease by having the ticks attached for several days before they are fully fed and drop off the skin.

Tick Tests and Safe Tick Removal

Finding ticks at the edges of a room, near the skirting boards, or in a dog’s bed may indicate that they have been exposed to the infection and any dogs in the house should be closely monitored for the development of Lyme disease symptoms. Saving and storing any ticks found is also a good idea as these can then be taken to the veterinary office for examination should your dog develop signs of infection. Where a tick is found during the inspection of a dog’s coat it is important to remove it safely by gently pulling it out by the head using tweezers. Take care not to twist the tick or apply too much pressure as this can leave the head embedded in the skin or cause the tick to pump its bacteria-infected stomach contents into the dog’s skin during removal.

Common Lyme Disease Symptoms in Dogs

The most common symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs are a characteristic bull’s eye rash that largely goes unseen due to the dog’s fur, and the development of a limp, joint pain, and arthritis symptoms. Lethargy and fever are also indicators of infection along with a loss of appetite and depression. In acute cases a dog may develop kidney failure and Lyme disease can be fatal; this is more common in younger dogs than in older dogs. Vaccinating your dog against Lyme disease is often advised if you live in an area where the infection is endemic, tick-control collars, and insect-repellent are also effective weapons in the arsenal against Lyme disease. Other preventative steps include regularly mowing the lawn around the house to keep any grass short, and clearing any debris where ticks could be lurking, such as old woodpiles. Detecting Lyme disease symptoms in dogs can be incredibly difficult, underlining the importance of Lyme disease prevention for dogs.