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Health, Public Safety, Virginia

Dogs increasingly vulnerable to Lyme disease, tick-borne illnesses in early spring

Crystal Graham
Australian Shepherd tri-color dog in bed of flowers
(© annaav – stock.adobe.com)

An eight-legged arachnid the size of a poppy seed can cause major problems for your pets, and if left untreated, may damage kidneys and the nervous system and cause chronic joint pain.

The culprit: A tick most often found in tall grasses and wooded areas.

Dogs are increasingly vulnerable to tick-borne illness including Lyme disease, according to veterinarians with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Black-legged ticks, also called deer ticks, are most common carriers of Borrelia burgdorfer and can be found in the northeastern and north-central parts of the U.S.,” said Jenny Marin, a clinical assistant professor at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

While Lyme disease was originally thought to be limited to the northeastern U.S., Marin says positive cases of Lyme disease in dogs have now been reported across 39 states.

Dogs tend to be bitten by infected ticks in the early spring and late fall when adult ticks are most active.

Diagnosis and treatment for Lyme disease

To diagnose Lyme disease, your dog’s veterinarian will examine its clinical signs, exposure to black-legged ticks and test results.

Dogs produce antibodies 4-6 weeks after infection, which can be detected through testing. Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics for typically a month.

“While antibiotics are effective in most cases, it’s critical to complete the entire course of treatment, even if symptoms improve, to prevent the recurrence of the disease and reduce the risk of complications,” said Marin. “Most symptoms clear up quickly with antibiotic treatment.”

For prevention, your vet may recommend vaccinating your dog against Lyme disease or prescribing a preventive product.

Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs

  • Fever
  • Joint pain or swelling
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Lethargy
  • Appetite loss
  • Increased thirst and urination

If left untreated, veterinarians say the disease can damage the kidneys, nervous system and heart and cause chronic joint pain. Kidney damage from Lyme disease is typically fatal, and damage to the nervous system can lead to seizure disorders. Heart damage due to Lyme disease is rare.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.