Dear Dr. Stillman, Can you tell me about Lyme disease? Should I get my dog vaccinated for Lyme disease? — Terry O.
That’s a very timely question with spring just around the corner. Lyme disease (as I’m sure you know) is carried by a tick. We have two common varieties of tick in our area. The Dog Tick is a large, brown tick with a pale “U”-shaped mark on its back. It’s disgusting but harmless. The Deer Tick is much smaller and more uniform in color. It carries Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Though we see more Lyme disease than every other infectious disease combined, I think that not every dog is at risk for the disease. Dogs that live out in the forest or belong to hikers, bikers, etc. are at a very high risk for the disease and should probably be vaccinated. Dogs that live downtown and only walk on the sidewalks are at a relatively low risk for the disease.
There are several varieties of Lyme vaccine for dogs, and they vary in their safety and efficacy. At this time I only use and can only recommend the recombinant DNA-derived variety. Other available varieties either are not as effective or carry the risk of potentially dangerous adverse effects or vaccine reactions.
Even the best Lyme vaccines are not 100-percent effective. The reason is that Lyme disease, unlike almost every other disease that we routinely vaccinate for, is caused by a bacteria. A bacteria is to a virus like you are to a cricket. They’re much more complicated and much more difficult to make a vaccine against. Bacterial vaccines do not last as long as viral vaccines and they are not as effective in preventing the disease. Still, with such a great risk of Lyme disease and with such a proven safety record, I think that the vaccination for Lyme disease is an appropriate precaution in dogs with risk of exposure to it.
I find in my practice that there are four telltale symptoms of Lyme disease. They are:
• A sudden onset of joint pain or a lameness that shifts from one leg to another.
• A low-grade fever. (A normal dog temp is 102-102.7. Dogs with Lyme disease are usually around 103).
• A decreased appetite.
• A noticeable lethargy or decrease in activity level.
Any dog that has more than a couple of these symptoms is automatically going to raise my suspicion level. Lyme disease can incubate for weeks to months, so sometimes I’ll see a dog showing these symptoms in the middle of winter, long after the last tick has crawled under the leaf litter and become dormant for the season.
It’s worth mentioning that cats are also susceptible to Lyme disease, though it is much rarer in that species. I’ve never identified a case of Lyme disease in a cat, though their symptoms are much the same as they are in a dog. Cats that go outside and develop lethargy and lameness or inflammation of their joints should be checked by your vet and treated appropriately if Lyme disease is suspected. There is currently no vaccine for Lyme disease available for cats.
I should also mention that you cannot catch Lyme disease directly from your pets, though they can certainly carry ticks in from the outdoors and deposit them in your clothes or bed sheets, where they might have the opportunity to attach to you.
Lastly, it’s important to remind you that our ticks also carry diseases other than Lyme disease, so vaccinating your dog for Lyme disease is no guarantee that they are safe from all tick-carried diseases. Be vigilant during the warmer months, use an appropriate tick preventative on animals at risk and try to restrict your pets’ access to areas endemic with ticks during the riskiest times of the year.
Dr. Norm Stillman is a veterinarian at the Court Street Animal Hospital in Plymouth, Mass. He can be reached by phone at 508-747-0774 or by email at email@example.com.