Protecting Pets From Lyme Disease: Prevention and Symptom Management TipsJun 30, 2023 ● By Paige Cerulli
When the weather is nice and we crave outdoor adventures with our pets, we may not want to think about Lyme disease, but it’s a good idea to take precautions to avoid an infection. One bite from an infected tick could lead to troubling health concerns. Despite the risks, there is no reason to hide indoors, as there are numerous actions we can take to protect our animal companions from infection and to relieve their symptoms should they contract the ailment.
Disease Prevalence in the U.S.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, Lyme disease is spread by bites from blacklegged deer ticks or western blacklegged ticks that carry the disease-causing bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. While cases have been reported in nearly every U.S. state, Lyme disease is most common in the Northeast, Upper Midwest and Northwest.
A 2018 study published in Environmetrics found that the prevalence of Lyme disease in dogs is getting worse in the Northeast and spreading into regions that weren’t previously considered to be high-risk, including areas in North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee.
Symptoms in Cats, Dogs and Horses
Lyme disease affects animals differently. Veterinarian Erin O’Leary, founder of Heal House Call Veterinarian, explains that cats with Lyme disease are asymptomatic. “We don’t see any symptoms in cats, so we don’t tend to test or treat for Lyme in cats,” she explains.
Canine Lyme disease is a different story. Per O’Leary, dogs often exhibit lameness that may shift among the legs. Fever and swelling in the joints are common. Dogs can also experience a serious kidney complication called Lyme nephritis that causes them to feel very sick, drink lots of water and urinate more. Two studies performed by IDEXX, a developer of diagnostic and software products for animals, revealed that dogs exposed to tick-borne diseases including Lyme disease had a 43 percent increased risk of developing chronic kidney disease.
According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, horses with Lyme disease may experience weight loss, lameness that shifts among the legs, muscle tenderness, low-grade fever and swollen joints.
Preventing Tick Bites
Nicole Savageau, a veterinarian with The Vets, notes that pet owners can naturally reduce their pet’s risk of being bitten by a tick by keeping their yards in check. “Ticks prefer to live in areas with tall grass, weeds and leaf litter,” she says. “Keeping your yard tidy by mowing your lawn and removing any dead leaves or debris can help reduce the number of ticks in your yard.”
Pet owners may also use food-grade diatomaceous earth, a non-toxic powder, to help kill ticks in areas where pets like to spend time. Several natural fly sprays, many of which help to repel ticks, are also available for horses.
Removing a Tick
It's important to carefully inspect pets for tick bites after spending time outdoors. “If you can remove the tick within 24 to 48 hours of the bite, it won’t transmit Lyme disease,” O’Leary maintains. She recommends tools like the Tick Twister or a pair of tweezers to safely coax a tick from their pet. “If you can get down to where the head is inserted and squeeze that with tweezers, that’s the easiest thing to do,” she says.
Savageau suggests keeping pet hair trimmed short, which can make it easier to spot and remove ticks, and cleaning the bite site with soap and water or an antiseptic solution to prevent infection. It’s important to watch for signs of inflammation or infection, like redness, swelling or discharge. “If any of these symptoms appear, or if the pet develops a fever or lethargy, the owner should contact their veterinarian for advice,” she says.
Caring for an Infected Pet
According to O’Leary, the antibiotic doxycycline is the best available treatment for Lyme disease, and giving the pet a bit of turmeric to eat can relieve inflammation, though it is best to consult with a veterinarian regarding the most appropriate treatment options and dosages. To reduce a fever, soaking a towel in cool water and applying it around a pet’s paws and ears will help.
Savageau highlights the importance of feeding pets a balanced and nutritious diet that supports the immune system, as well as supplements and other natural remedies. “This may include adding probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids to their food to support gut health and reduce inflammation. Herbs like echinacea may help stimulate the immune system and support the body’s ability to fight infections,” she says, adding, “Always consult with a veterinarian before starting any natural or alternative treatment for pets, as some may be harmful or interfere with prescribed medications.”
Paige Cerulli is a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts specializing in the health and care of pets.