by Dana Carr, DVM
Lyme disease is caused by the spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi. It is carried and transmitted to a host through feeding ticks. Therefore, tick control is the most effective means to prevent infection. Disease prevalence is increasing and expanding as the tick population grows. The Northeast U.S., including Alexandria and Arlington, is an endemic area where most dogs are at risk, and the disease threat is high. Luckily, there are several effective tick control products and a vaccine available for our canine companions. Because every dog’s lifestyle and environment varies, discussing individual risk factor and tailoring a preventative plan suited specifically for your dog with your veterinarian is the first step to protecting your pet from a potentially devastating disease.
The first thing to recognize regarding Lyme disease infection is that it manifests differently in dogs compared with humans. After being bitten by a tick that has transmitted Borrelia burgdorferi, 80% of humans go on to develop a rash and/or flu-like symptoms and within a few weeks develop joint pain. A smaller percentage of people develop neurologic abnormalities (15%) and a heart rhythm disturbance called A-V block (5%). Weeks to months after infection about 60% of people experience intermittent arthritis attacks, and 5% develop chronic neurologic issues. Overall, in humans Lyme disease has the potential for serious long-term sickness.
In dogs, illness may never occur. Most exposed dogs harbor the organism and never get sick, as the Borrelia burgdorferi organism is well-suited to live within the canine body without causing too much trouble. When a dog does become infected with Lyme disease, symptoms do not begin to develop for weeks to months after infection. At this time, arthritis symptoms and possibly fever are noticed. Thankfully, heart and neurologic manifestations are very rare, and the most classic symptoms of Lyme disease respond rapidly to a proper course of antibiotics. However, it is still very important not to overlook Lyme disease. Especially in endemic areas like the Northeast U.S. it can be a cause of chronic joint pain and a serious long-term consequence called glomerular disease. This is a type of kidney damage that occurs when the immune system is stimulated over a long period by the presence of a latent infectious organism. Therefore, early diagnosis is very important.Luckily, we have specialized tests to screen for this potential complication in our Lyme positive patients.
As with many diseases, prevention is easier than diagnosis and treatment. When it comes to prevention, there is nothing controversial about tick control. It is crucial in Lyme endemic areas, like ours, to use tick-controlling products. It is also recommended to avoid highly infested areas (i.e. tall brush, wooded areas, and wildlife areas). The Lyme vaccine is another added measure of protection that should be considered. Owners and veterinarians should be on guard for clinical signs consistent with Lyme disease. Contact us right away if your dog exhibits loss of appetite, inactivity, fever, enlarged regional lymph nodes, painful and/or swollen joints, walking stiffly (possibly with an arched back), and recurrent acute arthritis with shifting leg lameness.
Dr. Dana Carr, DVM practices at Shirlington Animal Hospital, 2770 S. Arlington Mill Dr., Arlington, VA 22206, (703) 570-6600, shirlingtonanimalhospital.com.