Lyme Disease In Dogs: What Your Vet Isn’t Telling You

Lyme Diseases in Dogs

Lyme disease – the mere thought of it is terrifying to pet owners everywhere. Rashes, lameness, swollen joints … these are all symptoms that you never want your dog to experience.

The good news is, the situation isn’t as scary as you may have thought.

Before we look at why, let’s take a look at how dogs get Lyme disease in the first place. 

How Do Dogs Get Lyme Disease?

A spiral-shaped bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi causes Lyme disease. It’s transmitted to your dog when an infected tick bites him.

Signs of Lyme Disease

Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs include:

  • Recurrent arthritis/lameness that lasts 3–4 days
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Reluctance to move or a stiff, painful gait
  • Swollen joints that are warm to the touch
  • Pain in the legs or throughout the body
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes

While there are many species of ticks, Lyme disease is usually carried by:

  • Deer Ticks
  • Western Black Legged Ticks
  • Lone Star Ticks

It’s important to understand that that Lyme disease isn’t caused by the tick itself. We’ll get into detail about this later. But first, let’s make sure you understand the tick’s role in Lyme Disease in different stages of development … larvae, nymph and adult.

Lyme Disease From Tick Larvae

Ticks aren’t born with Lyme Disease. They too get it from another living organism.

In the spring, ticks lay their eggs. By late summer the larvae hatch and are ready to feed. They wait on the ground for a small mammal or bird to arrive and brush up against it.

The larva will attach itself to the small animal and begin feeding over the next few days. If this animal has Lyme disease, the larva will carry the bacterium in its stomach. Mice and ground-feeding birds often serve as spirochete hosts. When the tick attaches to its next host, the bacterium transfers into the blood of the new host. 

Larvae are very hard to detect as they are no larger than a period in a print magazine.

Lyme Disease from Nymphs

Come fall, larvae grow to poppyseed sized nymphs.

Nymphs remain inactive throughout the winter and early spring. In late spring, the nymph will begin looking for a host. Once a nymph finds a host, it will latch on for four or five days. It will engorge with blood and swell to several times its original size. 

  • If infected in the larval stage, the nymph may give Lyme disease to its host. 
  • If the nymph was not infected as a larva but the host is, the nymph will become a carrier.

in endemic areas of the northeast and upper midwest, up to 25% of nymphs carry the Lyme disease spirochete.

Like tick larvae, nymphs prefer small mammals and birds … but your dog can be a suitable substitute.

Nymphs are also the most dangerous. Here’s why …

To give Lyme disease to your dog, ticks must feed for 24 to 36 hours. If you remove them before this time, they’re unlikely to transmit the disease. But because nymphs are so small, they often go unnoticed until they’re engorged. This makes the nymph most likely to spread Lyme disease. (In fact, all human cases of Lyme dis­ease come from infected nymphs).

Once engorged, the nymph will drop off its host and molt into an adult in the comfort of fallen leaves. 

Lyme Disease from Adult Ticks

Adult ticks will seek new hosts throughout the fall. Their peak activity is between late October and early November. 

Adults prefer taller vegetation. They’re usually seen 3 feet off the ground on high grasses or leaves. Adults often use deer as hosts but they’re also happy with humans, dogs or horses. 

It’s believed that 50% of adult ticks carry Lyme disease in endemic areas of the Northeast. But, while adult ticks can carry Lyme disease, they’re less likely to pass it on to their host. This is because they’re larger and easier to detect within the first 24 to 36 hours.

Note: the timing of peak activity for each life stage of the tick may differ depending on your area. Check with local health departments for peak tick activity where you live.

Other Ways Your Dog Can Become Infected With Lyme Disease

A little-known fact is that Lyme disease can spread through contact with body fluids. That means an infected dog can give Lyme to another dog. It’s unclear whether cross-species transfer can occur. 

In-utero transmission can also occur and animals may be re-infected with Lyme disease.

Lyme Disease Isn’t As Simple As A Bite From A Tick

I said earlier that Lyme disease is not caused by the tick itself.

While ticks can infect your dog with the Lyme disease … researchers have found that infection alone isn’t the cause of Lyme disease. In most cases, Lyme disease only occurs when there’s a coinfection.

Coinfection means a host (perhaps your dog) has one or more bacteria, viruses, or other infections at the same time.

What The Research Says About Lyme Disease in Dogs

Swiss researcher Dr Thomas Rau went to areas where Lyme was common. There he studied groups of farmers who were likely exposed to Lyme. And he found something interesting …

80% of the farmers had Lyme disease, but of that 80%, only 2% showed any symptoms. That means the vast majority of the farmers with Lyme disease were able to fight it off on their own. But why was that?

Dr Rau decided to find out. And this is where it gets interesting …

Dr Rau discovered that 100% of the people with full blown Lyme symptoms had other viruses … viruses that had already stressed the immune system.

This is in line with current research published in 2012 that looked into cases of Lyme disease (1). It revealed a link between existing health issues and Lyme disease symptoms.

How Likely Is It That Your Dog Will Get Lyme Disease?

The Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria found in ticks causes flu-like symptoms. Dr Rau’s research shows that about a third of ticks carry this bacteria species … meaning that if a tick bites your dog, it’s only 33% likely to carry the B burgdorferi bacteria.

If the bite is from an infected tick, then your dog may develop flu-like symptoms. He may also develop a rash at the site of infection.

This is the first stage of Lyme disease.

Dr Rau and other researchers estimate that only 10% to 20% of tick bites will lead to Stage 1 Lyme Disease. But if left untreated, 30% of Stage 1 cases will lead to Stage 2. This is where bacteria can infect the skin, joints, kidneys and sometimes the heart.

So that means your dog has about a 1% to 2% chance of Stage 2 Lyme Disease … the kind of Lyme disease that can make him very sick.

Stage 3 Lyme is the chronic stage. This stage can begin months or even years after infection.

The most common symptoms are joint and muscle pain. Only 1% of stage 2 cases of Lyme progress to Stage 3. This mirrors research done in dogs.

Most Dogs Never Get Sick

A study was conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. In the experiment, researchers infected Beagles with Lyme disease. Yet none of the adult dogs showed any symptoms of the disease.

Then they used Beagle puppies. This is because puppies would have weaker immune systems than adult dogs. The puppies showed about four days of transient symptoms such as fever and lameness in the same study. After those four days of on-and-off symptoms, the pups became asymptomatic. This means their bodies cleared the infection without any treatment.

Meryl P Littman was the lead reaearcher (2). She explains exposure to Lyme disease is common, but the disease isn’t.

“95% of exposed dogs don’t get sick, but they become Lyme antibody-positive on tests, which may scare people into thinking they need to be treated,” she says. “In some areas in New England, 70 – 90% of healthy dogs are Lyme-positive. At PennVet, we found about 40% of healthy dogs are Lyme-positive in our area.”

So, it seems that Lyme disease isn’t all that common. Dogs aren’t that likely to get it, even when infected. In fact, the experts at the ACVIM {American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine) don’t recommend testing for lyme disease in dogs, or giving the Lyme vaccine (3).

Cofactors That Increase The Risk Of Lyme Disease

You now know that your dog is more likely to develop symptoms of Lyme disease if there is a coinfection. So of course, you want to know what these underlying cofactors are.

This is where it gets weird. Dr Rau discovered that certain vaccines were cofactors for Lyme disease. And that includes the tick-borne meningoencephalitis vaccine.

Now, it isn’t known whether the Lyme vaccine for dogs is a cofactor. And that’s because they conducted the research on the human population. But, we can tell you that the LYMERix human Lyme disease vaccine was only used for 18 months between 1998 and 2000. After that they pulled it off the market amidst reports of serious adverse events … and because the vaccine may have caused Lyme-like arthritis.

And they have not developed a new Lyme vaccine for humans since.  Did you catch that?

They pulled the human Lyme vaccine from the market because of safety concerns. Yet vaccination for Lyme disease is still recommended for your dogs. 

Evidence is mounting that it could be this very vaccine that acts as a cofactor … allowing Lyme to progress from flu-like symptoms into a debilitating disease.

Dr Rau explains the relationship in this short video:

Other important cofactors for Lyme disease include:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Immune suppression
  • Coinfections from other viruses
  • Parasites
  • Other bacteria and fungi
  • Heavy metals and toxins

Dr Rau also found that all the patients in his study who reached Stage 3 had unbalanced fatty acid profiles. This isn’t surprising. When omega-3 levels are low, the resulting imbalance can cause inflammation … one of the many cofactors listed above.

How To Prevent Lyme Disease In Dogs

PetMD is one of the largest and most used veterinary sites in the world. It discusses how to prevent Lyme disease by using toxic sprays and chemicals, as well as vaccines. Most conventional vets also advocate this approach.

But if Lyme progresses into more than flu-like symptoms only when cofactors are present … then isn’t stressing the immune system backwards thinking? And dangerous for our dogs?

You know that Lyme disease only progresses to a harmful stage if dogs aren’t healthy, right? So how do vaccines and chemicals make dogs healthier?

Let’s look at the list of cofactors again but this time let’s consider the role of vaccines …

  • Chronic inflammation – vaccines are well known to cause chronic inflammation and auto-immune disease
  • Immune suppression – we know vaccines to suppress the immune system after administration
  • Coinfections of other viruses – well, that’s what they designed vaccines o do … deliver a small amount of virus into the body
  • Heavy metals and toxins – vaccines contain aluminum, thimerosal, formaldehyde and other dangerous toxins

Not to mention the side effects of conventional solutions such as …

  • Sprays
  • Spot-ons
  • Chewables
  • Collars

RELATED: Find out how we rank flea and tick prevention, from riskiest to safest …

So …how do you prevent Lyme diease in your dog?

If there is one thing you should take away today it’s this …

the more toxic your dog is, the more likely he is to suffer an exaggerated response to Lyme disease.

Research shows it … 95% of dog bitten by a tick are likely to have either no symptoms or mild flu-like symptoms. For the 5% of dogs who get really sick, how can you blame the tick when the other 95% do fine?

You can’t! The problem was already there before the tick came along … the bacteria in the tick was just the final small blow to an already weakened immune system.

While conventional veterinarians would have you “protect” your dog with toxic chemicals and vaccines … holistic vets know the secret to preventing Lyme disease in dogsis a healthy immune system.

They know that bacteria and parasites only prey on weak animals. And that a healthy immune system is what separates the 5% of dogs with Lyme disease from the healthy 95%.

Here are some tips to help bolster your dog’s immune system:

  • Feed a fresh, whole food species-appropriate diet.
  • Avoid any and all unnecessary vaccines (most of which are unnecessary).
  • Avoid toxic heartworm, flea and tick medications whenever possible.
  • Work with a holistic vet to replace any conventional drugs, vaccines and medications. Instead choose holistic, natural options that won’t harm the immune system.

It’s time to stop fearing Lyme disease and see it for what it is … a signal that there was already something wrong with your dog. So, take that worry and refocus it on improving your dog’s immune health instead.

Do that and research shows you’ll likely never face the challenge of Lyme disease in your dog. Not to mention, it’ll have a greater effect on his whole quality of life … not just the effects of Lyme.

  1. Berghoff W. Chronic Lyme Disease and Co-infections: Differential DiagnosisOpen Neurol J. 2012;6:158-178. doi:10.2174/1874205X01206010158
  2. Littman MP, Goldstein RE, Labato MA, Lappin MR, Moore GE. ACVIM small animal consensus statement on Lyme disease in dogs: diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. J Vet Intern Med. 2006 Mar-Apr;20(2):422-34. 
  3. Littman MP, Gerber B, Goldstein RE, Labato MA, Lappin MR, Moore GE. ACVIM consensus update on Lyme borreliosis in dogs and cats. J Vet Intern Med. 2018 May;32(3):887-903. 

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