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If Canine Lyme Disease Is On The Rise, Is Your Pet At Risk?

Updated on March 18, 2015
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Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Is your dog at risk for Lyme disease?
Is your dog at risk for Lyme disease?

According to Dr. Karen Becker, writing for, incidents of Lyme disease are on the rise. She goes on to say she is seeing more and more patients in her practice present with Lyme disease.

As summer approaches, and fleas and ticks become more prevalent, you might be concerned about your dog contracting Lyme disease from a tick bite. To alleviate your concerns, Dr. Cathy Alinovi, pet parent and owner of Healthy PAWsibilities veterinary clinic, shares her expertise about the causes, symptoms and treatment of Lyme disease in dogs.

Drawing; spiral shaped bacteria (spirochete) called Borrelia.
Drawing; spiral shaped bacteria (spirochete) called Borrelia. | Source

Q1: What is Lyme disease?

Dr. Cathy: It is an infection caused by a spiral shaped bacteria, a spirochete, called Borrelia.

Q2: How common is Lyme disease?

Dr. Cathy: In certain parts of the United States, Lyme disease is incredibly common. Lyme disease is now the number one tick borne disease in the northern hemisphere in both humans and dogs.

Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria.
Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria. | Source

Q3: What causes Lyme disease?

Dr. Cathy: The dog must be bitten by a tick, which in turn is infected with a bacterium called Borrelia Burgdorferi.

In Europe, there are other species of Borrelia that cause Lyme disease.

Q4: How many types of Lyme disease are there?

Dr. Cathy: Different types of Lyme disease are best characterized for humans. In humans, an early flu-like stage leads the set of symptoms. This stage turns into chronic aches and pains, limping, and feeling lethargic. In advanced stages, there can be kidney disease or even neurologic, brain disease.

While animals do go through these phases, they do not always share their symptoms. One morning, an infected dog may be a little off, may feel a little like he has the flu, and be fine the next day. The dog owner may not pick up on the early signs.

Q5: What other health issues does Lyme disease cause?

Dr. Cathy: The other health issues are probably the biggest problem with Lyme. Because Lyme is a tiny little bacterium that likes to hide, it gets stuck, and/or hides, in tiny little places. These places include the kidneys, the joints, the liver, the brain and sometimes the skin. Therefore, any location the bacteria can be is where there can be problems. The most common symptom believed to affect our dogs is lameness.

Q6: Can my Lyme infected dog transmit the disease to me?

Dr. Cathy: Lyme is not transmitted directly from dogs to humans. Both the dog and the human must be bitten by an infected tick in order for Lyme transmission to occur. It is actually a fairly complex lifecycle. The lifecycle includes all life stages of the biting deer tick, mice, deer, and the final host which can include dogs or humans.

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Q7: What symptoms should pet owners look for?

Dr. Cathy: Most commonly dog owners do not even know that their dog has Lyme disease. The next most common presentation is lameness. For example, maybe the dog is shifting the leg, and maybe it is just experiencing arthritis-like aches and pains. Less commonly, there can be kidney disease, liver disease, or even mental disease including seizures.

Q8: How do vets diagnose the disease?

Dr. Cathy: It is most commonly diagnosed with a quick, in-office test called a SNAP test (snap – for quick). Because Lyme is so very common, the test is included in many heartworm test kits.

More specific testing can be done at laboratories; this sort of testing is usually done to track the progress of the disease. It is a before and after test. However, no test is perfect, and some cases, Lyme disease is missed by the blood test.

These cases are missed either because the host, or patient, has not made enough of an immune response for the blood test to work, or because the bacterium does an excellent job of hiding in the body.

Q9: What types of conventional treatments are used?

Dr. Cathy: Until recently, doxycycline has been the antibiotic of choice. While it is still the antibiotic of choice, doxycycline has had an obscene increase in price, which makes it very difficult for many pet owners to afford to give 30-day treatments to their large dogs. The next option is a similar antibiotic called minocycline. Other antibiotics sometimes used are amoxicillin, cephalexin or similar drugs.

Q10: Why is Lyme disease so hard to detect and or treat?

Dr. Cathy: Borrelia is a sneaky little bacterium. One thing that it does to hide in the body is secrete what's called a biofilm. This is to protect the bacteria and help it hide in plain sight; the immune system cannot see the bacteria where there is biofilm.

Another thing the bacterium does is essentially change its form. Sort of like a Jekyll and Hyde, it can change what it looks like so that the body cannot recognize it so well. So one treatment method may only get so far before the bacteria changes. Alternatively, the Lyme bacteria hide so well the body does not know it is there; therefore, testing methods are inaccurate.

Alternative Treatments: Lyme Disease

Berberis (aka Barberry)
Essential oils

Q11: Are there alternative treatment methods?

Dr. Cathy: The biggest difference between conventional medicine and alternative therapy is alternative medicine knows it takes more than a 30-day course of antibiotics to clear the infection.

Because Lyme can hide in a biofilm and change how it appears, many different nutraceuticals, such as herbs, may be required to rid the body of Lyme infection. Just a few examples of herbs that can help break down biofilms are oregano, essential oils, and cranberry.

Berberis is a very effective compound for killing Lyme bacteria, but it can be a bit harsh on the intestines. The key is to aggressively attack Lyme, so it does not aggressively attack your dog. Additionally, remember your dog must still be eating great food. If your dog is eating an inferior quality kibble full of byproducts and food dyes, your dog’s immune system will never be strong enough to fully rid itself of Lyme infection.

Q12: What is the prognosis for dogs with Lyme disease?

Dr. Cathy: This is the million-dollar question. Conventional medicine says once your dog is infected with Lyme, your dog will always test positive. However, I do not find this to be the case in my office. Using the combination of excellent diet with rotation of herbal antibiotics, and dedication by the dog owner for six months to up to a year, my patients will stop testing positive for Lyme.

Sadly, because conventional medicine tells us dogs will always test positive, many veterinarians do not even treat when their patients test positive on the in-house Lyme test. I find my clients do not like the idea of leaving the infection and waiting until there are clinical signs, because then it may be too late to treat successfully.

Removing Ticks From Dogs

Q13: Can the disease reoccur?

Dr. Cathy: If a new Lyme-infected tick bites your dog, then yes, he can be infected again. However, in most cases is it really a recurrence, or is it just that the initial disease was never fully treated? The latter option is most common for conventionally treated patients.

Q14: What are the best preventative methods?

Dr. Cathy: Avoiding tick bites is the first option, and the second is to have a strong and healthy immune system, which is best achieved through great nutrition.

Great nutrition is defined as a meat-based, species appropriate diet preferably containing real food.

Q15: What is your opinion on vaccines to protect dogs against Lyme disease?

Dr. Cathy: There is still a lot of controversy about the usefulness and efficacy of Lyme vaccines. The product literature says the vaccines are 70% effective.

For some clients, they find that 70% is better than nothing is. I have seen terrible reactions to the vaccine ranging from a sore spot at the location to lameness and back pain that lasted for a year. Additionally, I find the only clients who want the vaccine are those whose dogs are already exposed to Lyme. Therefore, my clinical experience is not able to tell if the vaccine truly prevents infection.

Q16: How do pet parents care for these dogs?

Dr. Cathy: These patients are treated essentially the same as if there is a new infection. Feed the best nutrition possible to build the best immune system, and dedicate to whatever anti-bacterial medication will work to get rid of the infection. Again, it takes many patients 6 to 12 months to completely get rid of their Lyme disease.

Q17: What should pet parents do if they find a tick on their dog?

Dr. Cathy: First, do not panic. Second, if the tick is not attached, simply pick it off and flush it down the toilet. If the tick is attached, there are several different ways to remove it.

You can purchase this nifty little tick removing tweezers that help get the head out. If you do not have tick removing tweezers, your fingernails will work fine, but be sure to grasp all the way down at the skin, sort of pinching underneath the skin, so you get the entire creature. Then flush it down the toilet.

This neat YouTube video (below) shows twirling the body of the embedded tick until it lets go. There are other old wives tales like coating the body with Vaseline or putting a hot match on the body of the tick. Some of these methods may not work as well as others.

Regardless, if you removed the body but suspect the head is still buried, it is not a major crisis. The body is smart; it will form a scab at that spot and when the scab comes off, the head of the tick will also come out.

I think people worry that if the head is still in there it is still transmitting Lyme disease. If Lyme disease has been transmitted it is already done, the presence of the head is not going to make it any different. However, a nice healing salve over the spot can help things heal.

Q18: What other information do owners need to know about Lyme disease?

Dr. Cathy: One hard thing for dog owners to wrap their head around is the common idea that it is the large ticks that engorge their bodies that transmit Lyme. Often, it is the little baby ticks we may never see that transmit the disease. These tiny little ticks are the nymph stage. They are so small and only bite for a brief period so we may never see them on our dogs.

Just because a dog owner has never seen an engorged tick attached to their precious pet does not mean these dogs cannot be infected with Lyme. Furthermore, some leading edge practitioners postulate there are other insects that transmit Lyme; there is a possibility of it being transmitted while a mother is pregnant, or through raw meats. At this point these are only theories, but it's something for us to keep in the back of our mind as we learn more about the disease.


  1. Email interview, Dr. Cathy Alinovi, owner of Healthy PAWsibilities, 5/29/2014
  2. Becker, Dr. Karen, "Lyme Disease on the Rise,", June 14, 2011,

© 2014 Donna Cosmato


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