Outside with dogs

Will You Know if Your Dog Has Lyme Disease?


Updated May 28, 2024

Every spring, we hear the warnings about ticks. Experts predict a mild winter leads to an increase in the number of ticks and an uptick (no pun intended) in tick-borne diseases to humans and dogs alike. The most publicized of these is Lyme disease, one of the few infections that afflict multiple species.

Many people are unaware that dogs are susceptible to Lyme disease, but unlike with human cases, you won’t find a bullseye rash or other visible indication of infection. It is also common for joint pain or stiffness to be intermittent. This can mimic a mild injury, such as a sprain, and delay medical attention.

Joint stiffness and swelling are the most noticeable symptoms. These may be accompanied by a stiff walk and arched back, trouble breathing, fever, loss of appetite, signs of depression, and/or swollen lymph nodes near the infected site. Untreated, Lyme disease can lead to kidney disease, heart abnormalities and nervous system complications. When Lyme disease is diagnosed, treatment is similar to that for humans: in most cases, a month-long course of antibiotics. More serious cases may require hospitalization.

Of course the best way to prevent Lyme disease in human or beast is to avoid getting bit to begin with. Since avoiding all areas that may contain ticks is impractical (and would greatly limit outdoor activities), use of products to deter ticks is advised, as well as conducting a thorough body check after being in areas that ticks are known to live (particularly woods and areas with tall grass). The Companion Animal Parasite Council provides handy Parasite Prevalence Maps that can help you assess the risk by area, whether at home or while traveling.

There are a number of products designed to repel or kill ticks on your pet. These come in several forms, such as collars, oral medications and topical solutions applied to your pet’s skin. There are also sprays to protect your yard. Consult with your veterinarian to determine which one is right for you (factors such as lifestyle, your pet’s age, health, skin sensitivity, and the presence of other pets and small children in the home may factor in). Since these products are in essence, poisons, it is important to not double up on them and risk poisoning your pets or even yourself. There are also some natural and homemade products available; varying levels of success are reported with their use. A canine vaccine is available for Lyme disease, but it is not foolproof.

No matter what you use to deter ticks, nothing substitutes for a thorough check after each outing (and your pet will love the attention). Simply rub your hands over your dog’s body, paying special attention to areas your dog cannot reach on his own. If you find a bump, take a closer look. Deer ticks, the type that transmits the dreaded Lyme disease, are small and can be difficult to spot. Those who take their dogs with them on their outdoor adventures have likely had the displeasure of removing a tick from an uncooperative pooch, but the larger Dog ticks are easier to see and remove. It is said that a tick has to be attached for more than a day for it to transmit Lyme disease, so removing it right away will minimize any risk. The AKC has a good article on how to remove a tick.