Once they latch onto and begin feeding on the blood of a host, ticks can transmit a number of dangerous diseases through their saliva, the most common being Lyme disease. While deer ticks are usually responsible, other types of ticks can carry Lyme disease. The condition is caused by spirochete bacteria in the Borrelia burgdorferi family.
While humans can’t catch Lyme disease from a dog, they can be infected by a tick bite. In people, this typically causes a hallmark bull’s-eye rash around the bite within a month; however, this classic symptom doesn’t occur in dogs.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease in Dogs
With the absence of the bull’s-eye rash and the fact that Lyme disease symptoms in dogs are fairly nebulous, it’s hard to spot the condition in your assistance dog. Symptoms can take months or even a year to manifest visibly.
The prevailing symptom is limping or lameness due to pain and inflammation in the joints. Fevers—sometimes quite high—and loss of appetite are also often seen. Stiffness, arching the back, sensitivity to touch, trouble breathing, and swollen lymph nodes near the bite are other signs and symptoms. Symptoms may come and go and vary in severity, as well as affect different limbs at different times, but the disease continues to spread.
Kidney problems are also sometimes a symptom or complication of Lyme disease in dogs. Two common service dog breeds—Labrador and golden retrievers—are at heightened risk.
Diagnosing Lyme Disease in Dogs
Only your veterinarian can diagnose Lyme disease in your assistance dog. Unless a tick was discovered (and possibly tested), your vet may rule out other conditions first. A physical exam and medical history are key parts of the diagnostic procedure, and blood and urine testing is likely.
Two blood tests can diagnose Lyme disease, though both have risks of false negatives. One checks for antibodies produced in response to the presence of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, and the other checks for the bacteria itself.
Treating Lyme Disease in Dogs
If your vet diagnoses Lyme disease, treatment begins immediately. Because it is caused by bacteria, antibiotics are the go-to treatment. Acute symptoms should improve within three to five days, but a long course (usually four weeks) is necessary to completely eliminate the infection. If improvement isn’t seen early on, a different type of antibiotic may be needed.
Keeping your assistance dog warm and dry and limiting her activity are important management steps in the beginning of treatment. While the bacteria can be eliminated, joint symptoms may still come and go for a while or even permanently.
Preventing Lyme Disease in Dogs
Prevention is always best, of course. Ticks live in all sorts of wooded, grassy, and sandy environments all around the country, so keep your assistance dog from walking through these environments as much as possible. Keep the grass, shrubbery, and trees in your yard trimmed to limit ticks there, and consider treating your yard with a pesticide that kills ticks if they are a known problem in your area.
Talk to your vet about using a collar or topical application that repels and/or kills ticks. Vaccinations are also available and may be recommended in your location, so ask your vet about this, too.
Removing a Tick from Your Assistance Dog
If you find a tick on your service dog, quick removal reduces the risk of Lyme disease transmission. However, it must be done with a proper technique, as incorrect methods cause the tick to release more saliva into the host, or the head to remain embedded. Always wear protective gloves when removing a tick to protect yourself.
If the tick is still moving around on your dog, it hasn’t bitten yet and can simply be taken off and deposited into a container with rubbing alcohol to kill it. If it is affixed to your dog, your best bet is to use a tick-removal tool, following the product instructions. If you don’t have one, use tweezers to grasp the tick from both sides of its body and pull it straight out. Put the tick in rubbing alcohol to kill it.
Save the tick in a sealed container of rubbing alcohol for testing in case Lyme disease becomes a concern.
Lyme disease can cause serious symptoms in your service dog, including limited mobility, that prevent her from performing her tasks and cause considerable suffering. Because she goes everywhere you go, take care to avoid risky environments and check her for ticks when you can’t avoid them. It appears that ticks must feed for at least 12 hours before transmitting the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, so prompt and proper removal is important.