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Health & Wellness

Lyme disease and dogs

Here’s how to protect your pup from tick bites

Ticks may be small in size, but their impact on our pets’ health can be huge. One of the biggest risks is Lyme disease, which is spread by tick bites, and it can have serious consequences. Since it does affect many pets (so much so that April is Prevent Lyme Disease in Dogs Month), we want to make sure you’re well-versed in this disease.

Veterinarian and pet health advocate Dr. Aliya McCullough is diving deep into all things Lyme disease — so your pup’s outdoor adventures are never interrupted by a tick scare.  

What is Lyme disease? 

When ticks bite, bacteria is transferred from the tick’s saliva and travels into your dog’s skin, nervous system, joints and connective tissue (blood, fat, bones or cartilage). This can cause several illnesses, but one of the best-known is an infection called Lyme disease. 

Where are dogs most likely to be bit? 

Ticks are opportunistic bugs, and therefore, they can bite in most climates. However, they’re most common in moist, humid environments closer to the ground. If there are several trees or brush around grassy areas, they could also live there. But even in our own backyards, ticks can strike.

Symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs

Lyme disease can cause:

  • Fever
  • Sluggishness or fatigue
  • Joint pain or swelling
  • Limping in one or both legs
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

At your pet’s yearly wellness exam, vets will run a simple test to check for Lyme disease, other tick-related diseases and heartworm. However, some pets don’t show symptoms at all. Around 90 to 95% of dogs are asymptomatic (the bacteria can literally disguise itself from their immune systems and avoid triggering symptoms), making the disease hard to detect and treat. It’s even common for pets to get a false negative on their first test, as signs sometimes don’t show until 2 to 5 months later. If you’re concerned this has happened to your pup, ask your vet about a second test. 

Treatment for Lyme disease in dogs

In the case your pet does get Lyme disease, your vet may recommend antibiotics for a minimum of 30 days as a treatment. Also, ask your vet to run a full urine and blood test. You’ll want to make sure they don’t have a kidney infection, which is a severe (and sometimes deadly) side effect of Lyme disease. Kidney infections can also be associated with weight loss, vomiting, loss of appetite or fatigue. 

What happens if Lyme disease goes untreated in dogs? 

If left untreated, it can cause damage to the kidneys, heart (which is rare) or nervous system, causing seizures or tremors. There can also be continued symptoms like joint swelling, lethargy, fever, limping, loss of appetite or swollen lymph nodes. 

How can I prevent my dog from getting Lyme disease?

What seasons are safest for dogs? 

Ticks have more opportunities to bite during the warmer months because our pets typically spend more time outdoors. But ticks are extremely determined, so even in mild winters, it’s still a good idea to use preventive measures. 

Lyme vaccine for dogs

If your pet’s lifestyle includes outdoor fun like hiking, or if you live in Northeastern or Midwestern states where 70 to 90% of dogs test positive for Lyme disease in their lifetime, ask your vet about a Lyme disease vaccine. However, this shot is not a core vaccine like rabies, so you should discuss whether it’s needed with your vet (some states, like California, don’t even offer it). 


There are also some other tick and flea medications, like chewable pills, that can help prevent ticks from coming near your pup.

How to remove a tick from your dog

It’s a good idea to regularly feel around on your pet’s body to see if a tick has attached itself — especially after walks in the woods where ticks are common (you’ll feel a tiny bump, kind of like a pinhead). The safest way to remove a tick is by using fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible and then pull it upward. Don’t crush the tick to kill it, instead put it in a cup of rubbing alcohol or take it in a safe container to your vet to test for Lyme. 

The best thing to do is to have regular checkups with your vet. If your dog shows signs of Lyme disease, ask them to run tests. Don’t let a little bug cause a big problem for your pet by following these easy steps. 

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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