A LYME DISEASE PRIMER
While the infection we know today as “Lyme Disease” (named for the Connecticut town of Lyme) has been around for at least a century, public awareness (and confusion) did not really occur until the late 1980’s. Media exposure of this infection virtually exploded leaving most of the general public with some basic knowledge and concern about this infection as it pertains to both themselves as well as to their dogs. The canine experience of Lyme disease is very different from the human infection and we hope to sort out confusion with this article.
HUMAN LYME DISEASE VS. CANINE LYME DISEASE
THE TICK AND ITS CONTROL
An organism that serves to transport and deliver an infectious organism from one host to another is called a “vector.” The vector of Lyme disease in the Northeast U.S. is the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis. The female tick lays a clump of approximately 2000 eggs in the spring. A very small six-legged larva hatches and attaches to a host as soon as it is able. Since the larva is very small, it typically can only reach a small host, usually a white-footed mouse. If the mouse is carrying the Lyme disease spirochete, the baby tick will become infected when it drinks the mouse blood. The tick won't get sick but it will carry the Lyme organism with it throughout its life.
When the larva is full of blood, it will drop off the host and lie dormant until the following spring, about a year later. At this point the larva molts and becomes a “nymph.” The nymph is a bit larger and may select another mouse as host or may approach larger game such as a dog or human. The nymph feeds 3-5 days and when it is full it drops off, remains dormant until late summer. It then molts into an adult tick. When the nymph is feeding it may infect its host with the Lyme spirochete. If the nymph was not already infected from its larval stage, it may become infected now, during its spring feeding.
The adult tick seeks a larger host, hence its name “the deer tick;” however, with man encroaching upon the range of the deer, there are often plenty of dogs or humans for the tick to attack. The adult ticks mate on their new host, feed, and transmit the Lyme spirochete if they are carrying it. The male tick remains attached through the winter but the female, once engorged with the host’s blood, drops off, hides under leaves and other debris through the winter, and lays her eggs in the spring for the two-year cycle to begin again.
The feeding tick is basically a blood-sucker. It must keep its host’s blood from clotting in order to continue sucking so it is able to regurgitate assorted enzymes to keep the blood flow liquid and smooth. It is during this regurgitation process that the Lyme spirochete is brought up from the tick’s mid-gut to its mouthparts.
This process of transmitting Borrelia burgdorferi from tick to new
Tick control on the host is an effective means of infection prevention. There are numerous effective tick control products available in assorted formats including chewable treats, collars, and topical spot-on treatments.. All of these products either kill the tick or cause it to drop off prior to the 48 hour deadline.
For a chart specifying and comparing the details of these tick prevention products, click here.
On the west coast of the United States, there is far less Lyme disease than in the east, although the northern coast of California is considered to have moderate risk. This is because the Lyme vector in these areas is primarily Ixodes pacificus, a tick whose nymphal and larval stages strongly prefers to feed on reptiles rather than mammals.. Reptile blood has natural anti-Borrelia factors which kill the Lyme spirochete and prevent further transmission.
A color coded map where you can click on your state and county to determine Lyme disease risk:
There are several subspecies of Borrelia burgdorferi in different parts of the world so “Lyme disease” is not unique to the United States.
BORRELIA BURGDORFERI: THE SPIROCHETE AND ITS DETECTION
This presents an enormous diagnostic challenge:
A dog with symptoms of Lyme disease ideally should have a test to confirm or rule out Lyme disease. Since it is almost impossible to culture the Lyme spirochete, efforts have centered on detection of antibodies against the Osp’s. Here are the problems encountered with this method:
This still does not address distinguishing active infection from exposure. Dogs will test C6 positive within 3-5 weeks of infection. They stay positive for over a year. Putting together a clinical diagnosis based on the test results and symptoms of the pet remains in the realm of the veterinarian in charge.
TESTING APPARENTLY HEALTHY DOGS
The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Consensus Statement on Lyme disease recommends testing any dog living in or recently visiting a Lyme endemic area for C6 antibodies. In areas where Lyme disease is common, this is typically done as part of the annual wellness visit along with heartworm testing. The idea is to identify infected dogs and then screen them for urinary protein loss so as to catch the diagnosis of Lyme Nephritis early. Since dogs do not generally get sick from their Lyme Borrelia infection, most experts do not recommend treating dogs for Lyme disease simply because they are positive for C6 antibodies but owners should be aware of the potential for Lyme disease symptoms in the future.
TREATMENT AND ITS GOALS
Which of these dogs get sick and which ones do not? Does the dog with joint pain, fever, and a positive C6 test need medication? This is where the news is particularly good.
Treatment of Lyme disease utilizes a 2-4 week course of doxycycline, or its cousin minocycline. Oral amoxicillin or injectable cefovecin (Convenia®) can also be used as an effective alternatives. If Lyme disease is a consideration, many veterinarians simply prescribe the medication. Obvious improvement is seen within 48 hours. Further, most tick-borne infections capable of causing joint pain, fever, and signs similar to Lyme disease generally all share doxycycline responsiveness so a simple course of medication actually covers several types of infection.
Complete elimination of the Lyme spirochete is not a reasonable expectation with treatment; the organism is simply too good at hiding. The goal instead is to bring the patient into what is called a “premunitive state.” This is the state that 90% of infected dogs achieve when they get infected but never get ill: the organism is in their bodies latently but is not causing active infection or disease.
GLOMERULAR DISEASE (LYME NEPHRITIS)
It is important to discuss a particularly serious complication of Borrelia burgdorferi infection: Lyme nephritis. While this occurs in a small portion of infected dogs, the consequences to the kidneys are frequently severe. While, as noted, a good 90% of dogs infected with Borrelia burgdorferi never get sick, some infected dogs are in fact harmed by the long time presence of an infectious organism in their bodies. The immune system is constantly active in its attempt to remove the invading spirochete and over the years these complexes of antibodies may deposit in the kidney and cause damage which can be severe. This group of dogs will likely require medication for their kidney disease: antibiotics, treatments to reduce protein loss in urine, and potentially immune suppressive therapy. It has been recommended that dogs with positive Borrelia burgdorferi antibody levels be regularly screened for significant protein loss in their urine with a test called a “urine protein to creatinine ratio” so as not to miss the these patients while their disease is still treatable. For more information on glomerular disease, click here.
LYME DISEASE VACCINATION
The object of vaccination is to prevent infection in dogs vaccinated before any exposure to Lyme spirochetes. A series of two vaccines is given with one dose 2-4 weeks apart followed by annual boosters. Some experts recommend a 6 month booster before going to the annual booster schedule. Dogs living or visiting Lyme areas will definitely need tick prevention and vaccination should be considered for additional protection.
Virtually all the vaccines act by blocking OspA. Basically the tick drinks in the vaccinated host's blood full of anti-OspA antibodies. The Borrelia organism needs OspA to effectively move into the tick's mouth parts for transmission to the host but with the tick's belly full of OspA antibodies, OspA is blocked and the spirochete is quarantined inside the tick.
Some vaccines also include OspC which is expressed
There are presently several types of vaccine that have been marketed and all of them are effective:
SHOULD HEALTHY DOGS TESTING POSITIVE STILL GET VACCINATED?
This is a controversial subject and every veterinarian will have a perspective. Here are the pros and cons:
Prevention of Lyme disease in the dog is based on the following principles: Vaccination, Education, Tick control. Hopefully, we have covered all of this in this article.
Argument For Vaccination
Argument Against Vaccination
Dogs that are Lyme positive and sick (including having urinary protein loss) should not be vaccinated for Lyme disease.
Again, when it comes to prevention, there is nothing controversial about tick control.
Lyme disease is a regional problem. For more guidance regarding this infection in your area or areas where you will be travelling, see your veterinarian.
ADDITIONAL LINKS ON LYME DISEASE:
Page last updated: 6/2/2022