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Lyme disease in dogs and cats: How to spot it and how to keep them safe

Lyme disease is one of the most common tick-borne diseases in the world. Transmitted through tick bites, your pet could be at risk if they go outdoors—even if they’re not an outdoor pet. 
Photo by Christian Lambert

Lyme disease in dogs and cats can be difficult to detect and can cause serious health issues, so it’s important to protect your pet.

If Lyme disease is left untreated, it can cause serious damage to your pet’s joints and organs, and can be fatal if it affects your pet’s kidneys. Facial paralysis, seizures, and other neurological symptoms can also be caused by Lyme disease.

When Lyme disease is detected early, it can be treated with a few weeks of antibiotics. However, antibiotic treatment may not completely eliminate the infection and recurring symptoms are always a concern. That’s why we recommend monthly preventative medication, routine tick checks, and regular visits to the vet to keep your pet safe.

Table of contents

  1. What is Lyme disease?
  2. How do dogs and cats  get Lyme disease?
  3. What are Lyme disease symptoms?
  4. How is Lyme disease diagnosed in dogs and cats?
  5. Is there a Lyme disease treatment?
  6. How can I prevent Lyme disease?
  7. FAQs

What is Lyme disease?

Lyme disease is a serious and potentially fatal bacterial infection for dogs and cats. Transmitted by ticks, which are active year-round, Lyme disease could be harmful to any pet that ventures outdoors. Here’s some info on symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, and the best way to protect your pet.

Lyme disease in dogs

If your dog gets a tick bite, a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi can travel to different parts of their body, damaging the organs and joints, and affecting your pup’s overall wellness. Dogs can be treated for Lyme disease with antibiotics and while  there’s a vaccine available, it is not 100% effective, so we recommend monthly preventatives as a first line of prevention.

Lyme disease in cats

Lyme disease rarely affects cats. In the few instances where cats get sick, the symptoms are the same as they are in dogs. If cats do show symptoms (most don’t), they typically appear two to five months after a tick bite. While cats can be treated with antibiotics, there’s no Lyme disease vaccine for cats.

How do dogs and cats get Lyme disease?

Dogs and cats can get Lyme disease through tick bites. Ticks don’t jump or fly, but they can crawl. They get onto their host by waiting at the tips of bushes, trees, and other vegetation. When a dog or cat brushes against a bush, for example, the tick grabs on and looks for a place to bite. Once a tick bites their host, they must be attached for 24-48 hours before they can transmit Lyme disease.  

“Ticks are active year round, so pets are at risk in all seasons,” says Dr. Cassandra Vlahaki, Head Veterinarian at Juno Veterinary. “To keep your pet safe, we recommend monthly preventative medication and annual testing.”

Where do ticks live?

The ticks that carry Lyme disease are typically found in tall grasses, thick brush, marshes, and woods waiting to latch onto your dog or cat when they pass by. In Canada, the highest instances of Lyme disease are in southern Ontario and southern Manitoba.

What are Lyme disease symptoms?

Most dogs and cats  don’t display Lyme disease symptoms for two to five months after getting infected. At this point, the disease may already be widespread. This makes testing and prevention extra important.

Common signs of Lyme disease in dogs and cats

Common signs of Lyme disease include:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Reduced energy
  • Lameness (can be shifting, intermittent, and recurring)
  • Generalized stiffness, discomfort, or pain
  • Swelling of joints

If Lyme disease spreads to the kidneys, your pet may also show signs of kidney failure, which includes:

  • Significant weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Pale gums
  • Uncoordinated movement like stumbling
  • Breath that smells like chemicals
  • Significant decrease in appetite
  • Increase or decrease in water consumption
  • Increase or decrease in volume of urine
  • Ulcers in the mouth
  • Blood in urine
  • Lethargy

If Lyme disease affects the kidneys, it can be fatal. Heart problems and neurological issues can also occur.

How is Lyme disease diagnosed in dogs and cats?

Lyme disease is diagnosed by going through your pet’s history, checking for physical symptoms, and doing a blood test. The blood test detects antibodies that suggest an active Lyme infection. This test will also check for other tick-borne diseases. If we suspect Lyme disease, we may recommend more diagnostic tests to determine if antibiotic treatment is the right thing for your pet.

When should my pet be tested for Lyme disease?

If your pet had a tick bite and they’re showing signs of infection, or symptoms of Lyme disease, you should bring them in for testing right away. Otherwise, we test for Lyme disease, other tick-borne diseases, and heartworm in the early spring.

When is Lyme disease season in Canada?  

There’s no distinct season for ticks in Canada because they’re active whenever it’s above freezing. However, they’re especially active in the spring and fall when temperatures are changing. We recommend year-round prevention for ticks.

Is there a Lyme disease treatment?

Yes, there’s a Lyme disease treatment available for dogs and cats. Treatment for Lyme disease includes a course of antibiotics that kill the tick-borne bacteria in your pet’s system.  While symptoms will improve within days, treatment may not totally eradicate the bacteria. Your pet might need further treatment and relapses could be an ongoing concern.

“Treating Lyme disease can be complicated,” says Dr. Vlahaki. “That’s why strict monthly prevention is always the best move.”

How much does Lyme disease treatment cost?

Lyme disease treatment can be pricey. Not only do you need to pay for several weeks of antibiotics, your pet will need diagnostic testing, and in some cases, treatment for complications. Lyme disease prevention is a more cost-effective option, with annual treatment starting as low as a few hundred dollars.

At Juno Vet, basic testing and prevention starts at $320 before tax and includes Lyme disease and heartworm testing, plus six months of preventative medication heartworm, fleas, and ticks. You can also opt for a more comprehensive package, starting at $505 before tax. This includes basic testing and prevention, plus an annual wellness screen and fecal testing. The additional blood work helps with early detection and treatment for a variety of illnesses. Fecal testing can tell you if your pet is suffering from parasites like worms or giardia, which can be asymptomatic and can transfer to humans.

How can I prevent Lyme disease?

The best way to prevent Lyme disease in dogs and cats is with monthly preventative medicine for your pet and regular visits to the vet. Preventative medicine comes in chew or tablet form, or as a topical lotion that’s applied between your pet’s shoulder blades. If your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, daily tick checks should also be part of your routine.

Did you know? Monthly Lyme disease preventatives often include protection against other worms and parasites like heartworm, roundworm, hookworm, fleas, and ear mites.

Here are some common questions and answers about how to prevent Lyme disease in dogs and cats.

Does monthly preventative Lyme disease medicine kill Lyme disease?

No, monthly preventative Lyme disease medicine does not kill Lyme disease. Treating Lyme disease requires a separate and specific medication.

Can my pet still get Lyme disease if they’re taking monthly preventative Lyme disease medicine?

Yes, your pet can still get Lyme disease if they’re taking monthly preventative medicine. Preventatives are highly effective but they’re not foolproof. To make sure your pet’s monthly medication is most effective:

  • It needs to be taken on the same date, every 30 days
  • Your pet needs to take the whole dose
  • Your pets needs the right dose for their weight

Talk with your Juno Vet care team about the best preventative Lyme disease medicine for your pet.

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Does my pet need Lyme disease protection year round?

Yes, you should protect your pet with year-round preventative medication. Ticks are active any time it’s above freezing, around 4 degrees Celcius, so your pet’s at risk even in the winter.

How do I remove a tick from my pet?

Start by running your fingers over your pet’s body and through their fur. If you feel a bump or swollen area, check to see if a tick has burrowed there. Don’t limit your search to your pet’s torso, check between their toes, around their legs, the insides of their ears, and all around their face, chin, and neck.

If you find a tick, here’s how to remove it safely. You’ll need:

  • Clean tweezers or tick removing tool
  • Disinfectant or antiseptic cream
  • Isopropyl alcohol

Using tweezers:

  • Grasp the tick as close to your dog’s skin as possible (without pinching your pet).
  • Pull it out slowly in a straight, steady motion. Don't jerk or move quickly; if any part of the tick is left behind, it could lead to an infection.  

Using a tick remover:

  • Gently press the remover against your pet’s skin near the tick.
  • Slide the notch of the remover under the tick and pull it free, moving slowly and steadily.

Lyme disease in dogs and cats is serious and your pet may not show symptoms until the illness is more advanced. Monthly prevention, regular visits to the vet, and daily tick checks are key to keeping your best buddy healthy. If your pet’s not taking any preventatives, reach out to your Juno Vet today and ask about the best way to stay safe.

Q. Can people get Lyme disease from their pets?

No, people can’t get Lyme disease from their pets, and pets can’t transmit the disease to each other. However, the same ticks that infect pets infect people. So if you’re spending a lot of time in the same places as your pet, you should protect yourself, too.

Q. My pet has a tick bite. Do I need to bring them in?

We recommend bringing your pet in for Lyme disease screening, six weeks after the tick bite. This is the earliest that your pet will appear positive for Lyme disease if it was transmitted by the tick.

Q. I have a puppy or a kitten. When should I start Lyme disease prevention?

Puppies and kittens aren’t born with protection against Lyme disease, so they’re at risk for becoming infected with Lyme diseases from the first day of life. Lyme disease prevention can be started at eight weeks of age.