In the greater New York City area, where I practiced veterinary medicine prior to retiring, there were horse barns I visited where almost every person, horse, and dog had contracted Lyme disease at one time or another. It seemed like it was epidemic. Being in the middle of such a hotbed, I’ve witnessed many diagnostic and therapeutic approaches that have and have not worked—and there are many varied opinions regarding symptoms, vaccination controversies, and treatment options. While much is known about this debilitating disease, the plain truth is that a tremendous amount still remains unknown.
Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-transmitted diseases in the world. It is caused by an organism known as a spirochaete and named Borrelia burgdorferi. The disease was first diagnosed in the U.S. in the northeast, where a large percentage of the cases still occur, though it has spread to most states, with high incidences in California and Michigan as well. Indeed, Lyme can now be found worldwide—and in ancient Chinese medical literature, they actually describe a syndrome very similar to Lyme disease, thousands of years before Lyme, Connecticut was named!
What are the symptoms of Lyme Disease?
Fairly common in dogs, the main clinical signs of Lyme include a sudden yet recurring lameness that may shift from leg to leg. Sometimes this lameness is associated with a fever and depression. Occasionally, you’ll notice swollen lymph nodes, and joints may be swollen, warm, and tender. Animals with Lyme disease usually walk stiffly, with a hunched back, and they exhibit extreme sensitivity: they may cry out at even the slightest touch. I witnessed this with my own Golden Retriever—he awakened one morning so stiff that he could barely make the walk over to his food bowl. I immediately treated him with antibiotics, and he improved within twenty four hours.
If your pet is not diagnosed properly and treated immediately, the disease can spread to the heart, kidneys, and the nervous system, including the spinal cord and the brain, presenting symptoms associated with these organs. The organism has been found in connective tissue, in joints, muscles, and lymph nodes. It is one nasty bug!
In some cases, you’ll spot the classic round red target lesion around a tick bite—but you cannot count on this. This is one reason why Lyme disease is also commonly known as “the great imitator,” and why it is often misdiagnosed—because its symptoms can mimic those of many other diseases. In some cases, I have seen dogs crying in pain, diagnosed with intervertebral disc syndrome in their neck, when actually, it was Lyme that was causing the muscle spasms, which only improved when the dogs were administered the appropriate course of antibiotic treatment. I also recall one Gordon Setter puppy, whose first symptoms of Lyme disease were lack of appetite and an arrhythmia in the heart. The dog became stiff and lame three days later. Fortunately I knew the heart problem wasn’t there a few weeks prior on a normal exam and was suspicious of Lyme. We treated it successfully and the heart problem resolved.
Considering the wide variety of potential symptoms, how can your veterinarian diagnose it? If at all suspicious, it is very important to run a special blood test called a Lyme titer. While there are two types, known as the Elisa test and the western blot test, my particular preference is to go with the western blot test. It may take a bit longer to run, but I find it much more accurate, correlating with the presenting signs. The Elisa test, on the other hand, has been known to produce a false negative. If your dog has many of the symptoms of Lyme disease and still tests negative, do not assume the test results are accurate. Often, I don’t even wait for the test results, but rather, treat my patient aggressively with antibiotics if enough of the symptoms are present. I prefer to be as natural as possible and use antibiotics only when absolutely necessary, but in this one instance, they are needed fast! Fortunately, in Lyme disease, the response to appropriate antibiotics is quite rapid.
When considering Lyme disease as a possibility, one must also think about other tick-transmitted diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever or canine Erlichiosis. Arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, other joint diseases as well as kidney failure or heart problems from other causes need to be considered as well.
Over the years, additional tick borne diseases have been identified and should be tested for as well. Having treated canine Lyme disease for decades, my single biggest suggestion is to be thorough. Find a veterinarian who has a significant amount of experience diagnosing and treating Lyme disease—and an open mind, too! Don’t be fooled: it’s a year-round disease, and too often, Lyme is overlooked as the cause, especially if symptoms first appear in winter. This can be a mistake!
What are the best treatments for Lyme Disease?
What is the best treatment? As mentioned previously, I feel strongly that immediate antibiotic therapy is imperative. Doxycycline, tetracycline, and amoxicillin seem to be the best antibiotics for treating Lyme. I suggest staying on antibiotics for a minimum of one month, sometimes longer. If not treated for at least a month, symptoms often return and do not respond when the dog is prescribed a second round.
A holistic integrative approach may also include using probiotics such as acidophilus to keep the healthy bacteria alive in your pet’s gastrointestinal tract. In addition, the organism that causes Lyme can further suppress the immune system, which is why I usually recommend nutritional and herbal support to boost the animal’s immune response. This would include a specifically prepared form of a western herb, prima una de gato, specific Chinese herbal formulas, and medicinal mushrooms. Sometimes, when I see chronic Lyme disease in a dog, I will also use acupuncture to boost the immune system and relieve the pain and inflammation.
Though homeopathy remains controversial, I have also found certain homeopathic remedies to be helpful. The most successful of these according to some veterinarians include homeopathic Ledum and a Lyme nosode. Lyme nosode is a homeopathic remedy that is made from the killed organism, diluted, successed, and potentized to the point that nothing of the original organism remains. For appropriate dosages of these remedies, contact an experienced homeopathic veterinarian.
Can Lyme Disease be prevented?
As far as prevention goes, this is a sticky wicket. There has been a great deal of controversy concerning the dog Lyme vaccine, especially in its initial form. There continues to be much debate about how well the vaccines actually work, as well as their potential side effects, which may vary from rheumatoid arthritis and other major symptoms of Lyme disease to acute kidney failure. Though nothing is definitively documented, I personally have been very cautious in the past, choosing not to recommend vaccination for Lyme disease. Many veterinary schools and major veterinary referral clinics have also been hesitant to fully endorse the vaccine in the past, sharing similar concerns about the potential side effects. I have observed all the classic symptoms in dogs four to eight weeks following vaccination, yet when I sent the western blot test to Cornell, it showed no evidence of the disease, only evidence of the dog having been vaccinated. As time has progressed, additional canine Lyme vaccines have evolved, which seem safer with fewer side effects, but I still remain cautious. My suggestion these days is “judicious discernment.” A holistic perspective in general suggests looking at the individual animal and weighing the risks and benefits of your specific circumstances. If you live in a particularly high-risk area for Lyme, perhaps you go the route of vaccination. If you have a dog with a particularly sensitive immune system due to their breed or other factors, perhaps you stay clear. In the end, this should be a decision you consider carefully and discuss with your veterinarian.
Other preventatives also come with their pros and cons. In the past, I had found that collars did not seem to work that well, though newer ones appear to be a bit more effective. Some of the topical and ingestible insecticides do seem to work well, but then one has to weigh the potential for toxic effects from the beneficial effects of preventing ticks. In the past, I tended to compromise and used topicals during the greatest incidence of ticks, usually in the spring and fall. It is all a balance!
Some dog owners have found certain specific animal-safe essential oils may be effective prevention against ticks, including “cedarcide,” though I cannot comment on these from first hand experience. Again, it’s always best to talk to your veterinarian or a holistic, integrative veterinarian that you trust.
In the end, perhaps the best preventative measure—and certainly the safest—is to keep your pets away from tick-infested areas, check them carefully at least once a day, and immediately remove any ticks. With a little extra vigilance on your part, your dog can stay healthy and happy and tick-free!!
This article does not take the place of professional or medical advice. Always see your veterinarian to diagnose and treat health conditions in your dog. The author and Love, Dog do not accept any liability for any injury, loss, or damage caused by use of the information provided.