Examination and Lyme Disease Vaccine for Dogs

IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Regular examinations are essential to maintaining canine health; a thorough physical examination checks every major body system.
  • Lyme disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected tick.
  • Clinical signs of Lyme disease are not always obvious, so periodic testing can identify dogs that have been infected. Even dogs that receive year-round tick control products and don’t spend a lot of time outside may be at risk for exposure to tick-borne diseases.
  • The Lyme disease vaccine helps prevent disease caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme disease organism. However, the vaccine is not necessarily recommended for all dogs. Ask your veterinarian if your dog should receive this vaccine.

Why Are Physical Examinations Important?

Dogs don’t always show outward signs when they are ill. In many cases, a thorough physical examination may be the best way to identify changes that occur with illness. Earlier diagnosis of a disease can often lead to more effective (and less expensive) treatment and improve the prognosis for your pet. Regular physical examinations are therefore essential to maintaining your dog’s health. A thorough examination checks every major body organ and system:

  • Eyes: The eyes will be checked for redness, cloudiness, or discharge that could indicate a problem.
  • Ears: Many pets develop ear infections. Your veterinarian will examine your pet’s ear canals for possible signs of an ear problem, including debris, growths, waxy buildup, or trauma caused by scratching.
  • Mouth: Your veterinarian will look in your pet’s mouth for signs of dental disease and for broken or missing teeth. If any problems are detected, your veterinarian may recommend a thorough dental examination, cleaning, and possibly extractions for your pet.
  • Respiratory system: Your veterinarian will listen to your pet’s heart and lungs.
  • Digestive system: Your veterinarian will palpate (feel) your pet’s abdomen for signs of discomfort and to ensure that the major organs are the right size and shape.
  • Musculoskeletal system: Your veterinarian will palpate your pet’s major muscles and bones to check for signs of weakness or pain. If your dog is underweight or overweight, these issues can be identified and discussed.
  • Skin and haircoat: Your veterinarian will check all your pet’s “lumps and bumps.” If anything suspicious is found, a biopsy (removal of a tissue sample) or lump removal may be recommended.

During a routine examination, your veterinarian may also want to check your pet’s blood, urine, and feces to obtain additional information about your pet’s health and to help ensure that specific body systems are functioning properly.

During your pet’s examination, your veterinarian will ask you many questions about your pet’s diet, behavior, lifestyle, and health history since your last visit. The answers to these questions will help your veterinarian determine what preventive care recommendations he or she should make to help keep your pet healthy. Based on your pet’s age, lifestyle, and disease risk, your veterinarian may recommend vaccinations. In certain cases, a vaccine against Lyme disease may be recommended.

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is an infection caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium. Lyme disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected tick and can affect many species, including dogs and humans. The disease is more common in certain areas of the United States, including the Northeast, mid-Atlantic states, and upper Midwest.

Ticks of the Ixodes species (called deer ticks) are known to transmit Lyme disease when they attach to a host and feed. Because the tick must be attached for more than 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease, frequent inspection for ticks (and quick removal) can reduce the risk of disease transmission.

Clinical Signs of Lyme Disease

Clinical signs of Lyme disease may not appear for several months after a dog is infected. In fact, many dogs fail to display any obvious signs at all. When signs of infection are noted, they may include the following:

  • Lethargy (tiredness)
  • Fever
  • Painful joints/lameness
  • Loss of appetite

Clinical signs may seem to resolve on their own, only to reappear later. Lyme disease has also been linked to long-term complications involving the joints, kidneys, heart, and nervous system.

Diagnosis

Lyme disease is usually diagnosed based on a medical history that includes the possibility of tick exposure, suspicious clinical signs, and results of diagnostic testing.

Several tests can identify the Borrelia burgdorferi organism in blood or tissues. However, many veterinarians test for Lyme disease using a test called a SNAP test. SNAP tests are a group of quick, convenient blood tests that can be performed at your veterinarian’s office. There are various SNAP tests for different purposes:

  • SNAP Heartworm RT Test: Screens for heartworm infection
  • SNAP 3Dx Test: Simultaneously screens for heartworm disease, Lyme disease, and ehrlichiosis (another tick-borne disease that can affect dogs)
  • SNAP 4Dx Test: Simultaneously screens for heartworm disease, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis (also a tick-borne disease that can cause illness in dogs)

SNAP testing is very accurate and is a good way to identify dogs that may be infected with one or more of these diseases. SNAP testing is also very convenient because it uses a very small amount of blood and takes only a few minutes to perform.

Dogs that test positive for Lyme disease on the SNAP test and have clinical signs consistent with Lyme disease usually receive treatment. However, treatment may not be necessary for dogs that test positive on the SNAP test but show no clinical signs. In these cases, your veterinarian may want to run an additional test (called a quantitative C6 antibody test or QC6 antibody test) to determine whether treatment is recommended.

In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend additional testing to follow up a SNAP test result or to look for other evidence of illness related to heartworm disease or a tick-borne infection. Testing may involve sending additional blood samples to a laboratory for further analysis or performing other diagnostic tests to obtain more information about your dog’s condition.

Tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis pose a risk to dogs in many areas of the country. Because clinical signs are not always apparent, periodic testing is a good way to identify dogs that have been infected. Even dogs that receive year-round tick control products and don’t spend a lot of time outside may be at risk for exposure to tick-borne diseases. Testing helps identify dogs that need treatment for one of these infections or an adjustment in the type of tick control being used.

Your veterinarian can tell you about the risk of Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis to dogs in your area. In some cases, your veterinarian may not recommend testing for all of the diseases. Even if you live in an area where tick-borne diseases are less common, be sure to ask your veterinarian what tick prevention measures can help protect your dog. Remember, if you travel to other parts of the country with your dog, it may be exposed to deer ticks or other types of ticks that can transmit other diseases. Make sure to tell your veterinarian about any travel that you do with your pet.

Treatment

Treatment of Lyme disease generally consists of administration of antibiotics and (if necessary) other medications to temporarily help control joint pain and other clinical signs. Some dogs show dramatic improvement after only a few days of receiving antibiotics, but most veterinarians recommend a 28- to 30-day course of treatment. Relapses are not uncommon, so pet owners are advised to monitor their dogs carefully for signs of illness.

Vaccination and Disease Prevention

Several vaccines are available to help prevent disease caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme disease organism. An initial vaccination is followed by a booster vaccine 2 to 4 weeks later (in accordance with label recommendations) and annual boosters as long as the risk for disease exposure remains.  Depending on your dog’s age and other variables, your veterinarian may recommend testing your dog for Lyme disease before starting the vaccine series.

The Lyme vaccine is not necessarily recommended for all dogs. Ask your veterinarian about the risk of Lyme disease where you live and whether the Lyme vaccine is recommended for your dog.

There are currently no vaccines to protect dogs from other tick-borne diseases, such as ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis. Appropriate tick control methods combined with periodic testing may be the best ways to help protect dogs from these diseases. Being “tick savvy” can also help protect your dog from Lyme disease exposure:

  • Check your dog (and yourself) frequently for ticks, and remove them promptly.
  • Use a reliable method of tick control (several spot-on products kill and repel ticks).
  • If possible, avoid tall grass or wooded areas where ticks are likely to hide.
  • If you routinely take your dog camping or walking in wooded areas, ask your veterinarian about the best ways to control ticks.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.

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