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With our sights set on warmer weather and all the summertime activities that go with it, it’s a good idea to prepare for the unique challenges you can face as a pet owner at this time of year.

Once spring arrives, we hear a lot of talk about Lyme disease—but how serious of a threat is this illness? And should you be taking extra precautions to lower your dog’s risk of contracting it?

We’ve done some digging, and we’ve turned up some answers. Here’s your comprehensive guide to preventing and treating Lyme disease in your dog.

What exactly IS lyme disease?

Simply put—Lyme disease is a bacterial illness transmitted by ticks.

Also known as Lyme borreliosis, the disease earned its name after a number of cases cropped up in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1975. While cases in the United States are concentrated in the upper Midwest, the Pacific Coast, and the Northeast, PetMD reports that the disease is burgeoning nationwide, making it an area of concern in every state.

Lyme disease is particularly troubling because not only is your canine companion at risk of transmitting it, but it can also be transmitted to other animal species—including humans.

How can my dog get Lyme disease?

Grumble Dog - bloated ticks are carriers for lyme disease

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The culprits behind Lyme disease are pesky deer ticks who carry the bacteria, Borrelia. These sneaky parasites hide out on vegetation, waiting to hitch a ride with an unknowing passerby. From spring through early fall, ticks come out of their hiding places in droves, making this time of year especially risky.

Interestingly, ticks can’t fly or jump. To latch onto their targeted host, they hang out on leaves and tall grasses until an unsuspecting critter brushes up against them. Once the tick grabs on to an animal, he crawls in search of the perfect place to chomp down.

Infection doesn’t occur immediately after a bite, but only after the tick has been latched on for about 24-48 hours. Which is good incentive to give your dog’s coat the once over after a good romp through the woods—the sooner you spot a tick and remove it, the better your dog’s chances are of avoiding infection.

Once the bacteria enters your dog’s bloodstream, it can spread to different areas of the body, wreaking havoc on his organs.

Can I be infected with Lyme disease by my dog?

Not directly, no. Once a dog has been infected, there’s no way for him to transmit the disease to you, or to any other household pets. The only way to contract Lyme disease is through a tick bite.

That said, your dog could carry some unwanted passengers into your home if you’re not careful. If your dog picks up a tick, he could unwittingly transfer the pest to you or another family member or pet.

5 ways to prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease

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The key here is prevention. It’s much easier to prevent Lyme disease than it is to treat the aftermath of an infection. Here are some ways you can actively prevent your dog from getting Lyme disease.

1. Give your dog a prescribed flea and tick medication. This can include collars, topical solutions, and chewable tablets that kill ticks. As an extra preventative, it’s also not a bad idea to ask your vet to conduct a tick check during your dog’s regular examination.

2. Avoid places where ticks congregate. During tick season, try to stay away from heavily wooded areas or thick foliage, as much as possible. Ticks hang out on foliage, just waiting for someone to kindly give them a ride. Don’t let your dog (or yourself!) be that someone. Equally important: don’t neglect lawn care. An unmowed lawn is another popular hangout spot for hungry ticks.

3. Do a fur and skin inspection. After hitting the trails, examine your furry hiking partner’s coat thoroughly. Focus on your dog’s feet (ticks can lodge themselves between the toes), underneath his tail, and around his lips, eyes, and ears. Don’t forget inside the ears, too.

4. Protect your dog with a vaccination. A less common approach in preventing Lyme disease is to have your dog vaccinated. You can discuss with your vet whether or not your dog is an appropriate candidate for this option.

5. Remove the tick immediately. When it comes to tick removal, there’s no time to lose. Because it takes upwards of 24-48 for a tick to transmit the infection, it’s critical that you get rid of him ASAP. If you find a tick, follow these tips from the Pet Health Network to remove it safely and effectively:

  • Wear gloves for protection
  • Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to your dog’s skin as possible. It’s important to avoid crushing the tick during the removal.
  • Clean your dog’s skin with soap and water.

Signs that your dog could have Lyme disease

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Lyme disease can be tricky to detect. It can take months for symptoms to appear, if they surface at all. There are, however, still some subtle signs that may suggest your dog is infected with Lyme disease. Here are the most common ones:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy and resistance to exercise
  • Recurrent lameness caused by inflamed joints, which may become swollen, warm, and painful
  • A stiff and uncomfortable gait
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Depression
  • Difficulty breathing

More concerning, Lyme disease can cause serious kidney damage. This will usually manifest as vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy, swollen limbs (from built-up fluid), and increases in urination and thirst. And while rare, Lyme can also cause problems with your dog’s heart or nervous system.

How a dog is diagnosed with Lyme disease

For a dog presenting clinical signs of Lyme disease, most veterinarians will conduct a combination of different tests to confirm diagnosis, including:

  • Blood tests
  • Urinalysis
  • Fecal examination
  • X-rays
  • Analysis of fluids drawn from affected joints

Treatment options for dogs with Lyme disease

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The most effective way to combat Lyme disease in your dog is to get him started on a 30-day antibiotic regimen. Most vets will prescribe Doxycycline, which is given by mouth twice a day for four weeks. Happily, PetMD informs us that a dog’s symptoms should improve dramatically within 24-48 hours. If your dog appears to be in significant pain, your vet may also prescribe an anti-inflammatory to make him more comfortable.

Unfortunately, antibiotics don’t entirely eliminate the problem. Symptoms may dissipate, only to rear their ugly heads at a later date. The unfortunate truth is that once a dog is infected with Lyme disease, he will always carry the bacteria in his body. The possibility of a relapse is a very real problem, so owners of an infected dog must remain vigilant, looking out for the most common signals: fever, swollen lymph nodes, and lameness.

If you follow your vet’s advice for prevention and administer flea and tick medications properly, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to deal with the headache of Lyme disease. Just be smart, and practice caution when you head out with your pup for that long-awaited camping trip.