Yes, your dog and (much less likely) cat can get Lyme disease if bitten by a tick carrying the Lyme bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi. Horses and cattle can get the disease too. While many mammals are invulnerable to the bacteria, these family animals often play both host to and victim of Lyme disease.* Check your pets as often as you would family members. Check daily if you live in an area infested with ticks.
*Studies have shown that dogs in regions where Lyme is endemic are highly likely to test positive for the antibodies (indicating exposure to Lyme) without manifesting symptoms.
How to Protect Your Pets
Tick-check and wash. Pets who roam freely in the woods are more likely to pick up ticks. Be sure to perform daily tick checks and remove any and all ticks. Washing your pet frequently can help remove ticks you can’t see.
Minimize exposure. Fencing systems can help confine a pet in an area where the animal is less likely to pick up ticks or where other tick control measures have been implemented. Do not allow your pet to roam freely in tick-infested areas.
Vaccinate. There are Lyme vaccinations available for animals. Check with your vet. Vaccination early (prior to tick exposure) will provide better protection. But vaccination even after treatment can help reduce future infection. Be sure to use the right medication for your animal. DO NOT use a dog vaccine or tick repellent intended for dogs on a cat.
For more information about recognizing Lyme symptoms in your pet, also see Pet Infections.
Lyme Disease in Dogs
Lyme disease in dogs most commonly manifests by a sudden onset of lameness and inflammation of the joints. Some dogs will experience other symptoms including weakness, lethargy, loss of appetite and weight, or fever. Lameness is generally temporary and abates once treated with antibiotics, however, in some cases, it can become more severe or even chronic.
Lyme can also cause more serious or even fatal conditions in dogs such as kidney, nervous system, or heart problems (acute cardiac syndrome is known to be caused by Lyme, but is rare). Symptoms that may indicate a more serious condition include: vomiting, diarrhea, extreme lack of appetite or weight loss, increased urination and thirst, fluid buildup (e.g., a swollen belly, legs, or lymph nodes), difficulty breathing, sensitivity to touch, or a stiff walk with arched back. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms.
Most dogs exposed to Lyme never become ill. They will host the bacteria, and may also host other tick-borne diseases such as ehrlichiosis and babesiosis, without ever showing any clinical reaction at all. Lyme disease is always more difficult to treat as the duration of the infection lengthens, so early diagnosis and treatment are key.
There is evidence that Lyme disease is more common among younger dogs than mature dogs and that certain species are more vulnerable than others (retrievers for example).
There are several antibiotics available to treat Lyme disease in dogs. The typical course is four weeks and typically the condition is resolved without further complications or additional treatment required. In some cases, as in humans, the symptoms do not cease after treatment and your dog may continue to experience pain or lameness. Speak with your vet.
The best course is always prevention.
Watch where they wander. Avoid allowing your dog (or other pets) to roam in tick-infested environments or habitats where Lyme is common. When walking or hiking, keep your pet on leash in the middle of the trail and avoid wandering into brushy or wooded areas.
Tick check. Be sure to groom and bathe your dog regularly, checking for ticks both by sight and by feel.
Consider repellent and/or vaccines. There are a number of tick repellent sprays, collars, and topical products that can be used to kill or keep ticks away. There are also Lyme vaccines available for dogs. Note: According to the CDC, the Lyme vaccines do NOT prevent against other tick-borne diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever or babesia. Speak with your veterinarian about your options.
Read more about Lyme disease in dogs from the Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University.