As a veterinarian that works in the Northeastern United States, I am far too familiar with Lyme Disease. It is endemic to this region of the country and many dogs and people alike become infected. In this article, we will review symptoms and treatment options, as well as discuss dogs’ life expectancy and survival rate with lyme disease.
Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a bacteria that is transmitted to dogs via tick bites. Dogs that are not on monthly tick preventatives are at risk of contracting the disease. Many animals will never show clinical signs of infection, but the animals that do can have major consequences.
As an emergency veterinarian, I don’t often treat dogs who have Lyme disease and are not ill. When I do have to treat Lyme disease dogs are generally feeling unwell or are suffering serious consequences of Lyme nephritis. This is a major complication of Lyme Disease where dogs will develop an acute kidney injury and become extremely ill.
How Will Lyme Disease Affect My Dog?
Only 5-10% of dogs who are infected with Lyme disease will show clinical signs. Most dogs who show signs of illness will develop them 2-5 months after becoming infected during the chronic stage of the disease. Of these dogs that do develop clinical signs, <1-2% of dogs will develop Lyme nephritis.
Dogs that are clinical for Lyme disease will have signs that include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Joint swelling
- Loss of appetite
- Neurological signs
Clinical signs of Lyme nephritis include:
- Vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite, dark stools
- Excessive drinking
- Excessive urination or decreased urination
- Oral ulcers
- Peripheral edema/swelling
- Spontaneous bleeding
How Will the Vet Treat Lyme Disease?
It is important to remember that just because a dog tests positive for Lyme disease, it does not mean that treatment is always recommended. If your dog is clinically normal, many vets will recommend monitoring. If you are concerned your dog is showing clinical signs of Lyme disease and has tested positive, your veterinarian may recommend an antibody test called a Lyme Quant C6. This is a qualitative test looking at actual levels of antibodies to determine if they are high enough to justify treatment. At my clinic, the cost for this test is around $200.
If your dog is clinical for Lyme disease and/or has a high antibody level, treatment will be recommended. Treatment consists of a month-long course of antibiotics – typically doxycycline. This medication is relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at most human pharmacies with a prescription. A fast response is typically seen where joint pain and swelling will improve a few days after initiation of therapy. Dogs with joint pain should receive adequate medication for pain control.
Dogs with Lyme nephritis may become incredibly ill secondary to acute kidney injury. They will become azotemic and feel unwell from high circulating levels of urea. Many veterinarians will refer these dogs to a referral hospital where they can receive intensive care. These dogs will require intravenous fluids, antibiotics, gastro-supportive medications, anti-clotting medication, and immunosuppressive drugs. In severe cases of the disease, dogs may need blood or albumin transfusions or even dialysis.
Can Dogs Survive Lyme Disease Without Treatment?
As many dogs who are positive for the disease never show clinical symptoms, treatment is not always recommended.
Dogs that have clinical signs of joint pain are unlikely to die without treatment but will suffer the consequences of the infection on their joint health. They may experience joint damage, osteoarthritis, or chronic pain. Dogs that have neurological signs can progress to having seizures, especially if left untreated.
Dogs that develop Lyme nephritis need veterinary care. Without aggressive treatment, they will die from the consequences of renal disease or clotting disorders.
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What is the Life Expectancy With and Without Lyme Disease Treatment?
Many dogs with only mild signs of Lyme disease will live a long healthy life once they are appropriately treated. Dogs with chronic joint pain are unlikely to die from the disease but may have a decreased quality of life.
Dogs with neurological signs may develop seizure disorders even after treatment. This can shorten life expectancy if the seizure activity becomes challenging to control.
Dogs with Lyme nephritis have a poor prognosis. Many will not survive even with aggressive treatment. Dogs that survive the first month of treatment will generally have a good survival rate of an average of 400 days. It is important to know that many dogs that survive acute kidney injury may develop chronic kidney disease. These dogs will likely need lifelong monitoring and treatments.
How Does Life Expectancy & Survival Rate Vary by Lyme Disease Type?
Dogs who are not clinical for Lyme disease or those who have mild signs of the disease are likely to make a full recovery. They will have a normal life.
Dogs with severe joint inflammation or neurological signs may have a shortened life span due to a decreased quality of life. This is especially true for animals with chronic joint pain or those who develop seizures.
Lyme nephritis has the worst prognosis and many dogs will die. One study found that all dogs who were enrolled were euthanized between 1-8 weeks after diagnosis.
How Can I Make My Dog’s Life Better with Lyme Disease?
Any dog who has tested positive for Lyme disease should be closely monitored at home and by their veterinarian. Early action if clinical signs occur is important to prevent the progression of the disease. It is important to ensure antibiotics are administered as directed by your veterinarian and the entire course is completed. After treatment, use appropriate tick prevention as dogs can be reinfected.
Dogs with Lyme arthritis should be treated with pain medication to ensure their comfort. Make sure they have comfortable bedding and gradually increase exercise as they feel better.
Dogs who are recovering from Lyme nephritis will need extra TLC. They should have free access to fresh water at all times. They may need to urinate more frequently so multiple walks a day are recommended. Most will benefit from a renal diet and may need subcutaneous fluid therapy. These dogs will require frequent rechecks with their veterinarian for urine testing and bloodwork to assess renal function.
Can a Dog Overcome Lyme Disease?
Most dogs with clinical signs of Lyme disease will make a full recovery and have an excellent prognosis. Dogs who have Lyme nephritis have a grave prognosis and many will not survive even with aggressive treatment.
What Are the Three Stages of Lyme Disease in Dogs?
Lyme disease is designated into three stages predominantly in human medicine:
Stage 1: Early local disease – 1-4 weeks
- This is a localized disease that develops near the site of the tick bite. This is when there is inflammation of the skin and evidence of fever, swollen lymph nodes, and joint pain.
Stage 2: Early disseminated disease – 1-4 months
- This is when the disease will cause systemic side effects such as multiple joint inflammation or neurological signs
Stage 3: Late persistent Lyme Disease
- This is where lasting damage to the joints or nerves can occur. Chronic arthritis can develop alongside facial paralysis.
This staging scheme is not the same for veterinary patients. Infections are typically divided into acute and chronic phases of the disease.
Is Lyme Disease Painful in Dogs?
Yes and no. Lyme disease does not always cause pain. If it causes inflammation of the joints, many dogs will be uncomfortable or have lameness.
Can Lyme Disease Paralyze a Dog?
No, Lyme disease is unlikely to cause paralysis in dogs. Ticks that transmit Lyme disease can lead to tick paralysis which is a very different issue. Learn more about tick paralysis here.
Is Lyme Disease Fatal for Dogs?
Lyme disease is most commonly not a fatal disease and carries an excellent prognosis. Lyme nephritis is associated with a very high mortality rate and most dogs will die.
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