Lyme Disease Symptoms and Treatment for Dogs
The signs your dog has Lyme Disease are more straightforward than the symptoms in humans. Know the symptoms of Lyme Disease in dogs, and how to treat this tick-borne disease.
[Updated December 14, 2018]
When I opened her crate that morning, Samantha didn’t move. Instead of racing around with a toy in her mouth, our bouncy one-year-old Labrador Retriever stared at us with wide brown eyes, looking frightened. She didn’t object when my husband lifted her, but when he set her down, she stood as though frozen. He carried her outside and held her while she urinated. When he let go, she couldn’t walk.
A few hours later, our vet announced that every joint in her body was inflamed and she had a fever. No wonder our puppy couldn’t move. She hurt all over. Samantha had Lyme disease.
Lyme disease affects thousands of Americans and their dogs and horses each year. Named for Old Lyme, Connecticut, where it was discovered formally identified in the 1970s, Lyme is a regional disease, with 90 percent of its cases in New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The rest come from the upper Mississippi (Wisconsin and nearby states) and parts of California and Oregon. A few dogs and people with Lyme disease live elsewhere, but they are believed to have been infected during travel or, in some cases, by ticks from migrating birds.
Lyme Disease Symptoms in Dogs
Veterinarians in the Northeast know Lyme disease well. “Its symptoms are very noticeable in dogs,” says Beverly Cappel, DVM, in Chestnut Ridge, NY. “They look like they’re coming down with the flu. They ache everywhere, walk hunched over as though stepping on eggshells, limp, have no appetite, and move in slow motion.
Their necks are stiff, their heads ache, they don’t want to look up at the light, and they squint.”
Why is Lyme Disease So Scary?
The microorganism that causes Lyme disease is Borrelia burgdorferi, a spirochete (pronounced SPY-ro-keet) or spiral-shaped bacterium. Leptospirosis and syphilis are also caused by spirochetes, which are extremely difficult to eradicate because they hide in tendons, muscle tissue, lymph nodes, organs such as the heart and brain, and other parts of the body, where they can remain dormant for years.
In humans, Lyme disease is often accompanied by a red rash that forms concentric circles (a signature bull’s eye rash), splotchy dots, or a wide band. Because its symptoms mimic other illnesses, it is difficult to diagnose. In advanced cases, it can cause vision problems, slowed or irregular heartbeat, facial paralysis, seizures, hearing loss, nerve damage, emotional instability, inflammation of arteries in the brain, and death.
According to Max Appel, DVM, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine and one of the nation’s leading authorities on canine Lyme disease, the illness is less ambiguous in dogs. Despite rumors to the contrary, he said in a March 2001 interview, Lyme disease does not cause bladder incontinence in spayed bitches, nor does it manifest in the variety of symptoms common in advanced human cases. “Lyme disease can be fatal in dogs,” he explains, “but its primary symptom is lameness. Dogs can get a rash, but it’s rarely seen. In advanced cases, renal (kidney) failure is the leading cause of death.”
Lyme Disease and the Immune System of Dogs
Dr. Appel’s area of research is the pathogenesis of Lyme disease, the study of how the infection enters the body, moves through the bloodstream, incubates, and causes symptoms. His research group studied hundreds of dogs for more than a decade, defining the illness, conducting vaccination trials, and testing antibiotic treatments.
“We tried four different antibiotics against canine Lyme disease,” he says, “and they seemed to have a good effect on clinical signs. The dogs recovered quite nicely, and there was a reduction in the number of spirochetes in the body. But antibiotics cannot eliminate the spirochetes entirely. They hide and, over time, can build up again and cause a relapse.” One way to trigger a relapse, says Dr. Appel, is by treating the dog with corticosteroids. “These drugs are immune system suppressants,” he explained. “We documented dogs that had been treated with antibiotics and were symptom-free for over a year and a half, but as soon as they were treated with corticosteroids, they went lame with Lyme disease. Steroid drugs are absolutely not a good idea for any dog that has been treated for Lyme disease.”
Injuries, illnesses, and other immune system stresses can also trigger recurrences. A wasp sting reactivated Samantha’s Lyme disease eight months after her first attack. Vaccinations, infections, an abscessed tooth, and even emotional stress can impair the immune system enough to let hidden spirochetes flourish.
Lyme Disease is transmitted to dogs between 24 and 48 hours after the tick bite.
Among medical doctors who treat human Lyme disease, there is much debate about its transmission by vectors other than ticks. The May 2001 edition of Alternative Medicine features a lengthy article on Lyme disease that claims it can be transmitted by fleas, mosquitoes, mites, and human-to-human contact. Dr. Appel disagrees.
“That’s speculation,” he says. “The agent has been isolated from other vectors, but there is no proof whatsoever that these vectors can transmit the disease. A tick has to feed for 24 to 48 hours before it can transmit any spirochetes. During this time the Lyme disease spirochetes, which live in the mid-gut of the tick, migrate to the tick’s salivary gland. This method of transmission is so specific that even other species of tick, such as the dog tick, have not been shown to transmit Lyme disease even if they carry the spirochete. They can transmit other illnesses, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, and babesiosis, but not Lyme disease.”
Dr. Appel housed dogs infected with Lyme disease with those that did not have the illness, and their prolonged exposure convinced him that Lyme disease is not transmitted from dog to dog by physical contact or exposure to urine or saliva. Although human babies have been born with the infection, in dogs the transmission from pregnant bitch to developing offspring or from infected mother to nursing puppies has not been documented.
Prevent Your Dog from Getting Tick-Borne Illnesses
No matter where you live, ticks can be hazardous to your dog’s health. In addition to Lyme disease, ticks transmit babesia, ehrlichia, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and other infections. Dogs that live where ticks are common should be inspected daily, even if they don’t spend much time outside. Samantha’s first bite occurred not in our tick-infested woods or fields of tall grass, but during her convalescence after being spayed at seven months, when her only outdoor activities were sedate walks along paved sidewalks. The timing of the bite was unfortunate, for a dog recovering from surgery is far more vulnerable than usual to infections of all kinds.
Prompt discovery and removal of ticks is key to preventing transmission of Lyme, says the Centers for Disease Control. “Transmission of B. burgdorferi from an infected tick is unlikely to occur before 36 hours of tick attachment. Daily checks for ticks and their prompt removal will help prevent infection.” However, this takes some dedication, as the ticks that transmit Lyme are incredibly tiny.
For a full understanding of the range of chemical and non-toxic tick repellents for dogs, read, "Protecting Your Dog from Tick Bites and Lyme Disease".
How to Treat Tick Bites
A dog in the wrong place at the wrong time can be bit by dozens or even hundreds of ticks. Deer ticks go through three stages of life (larva, nymph, and adult), and feed only once in each of these stages; a blood meal ends each stage.
Larval ticks dine on mice and other small rodents, but nymphs and adults are a threat to dogs. Because they are small and their bites don’t itch, ticks are easily overlooked, especially adult deer ticks and the nymphs of any species. Ticks prefer warm, moist conditions, so double-check under collars and around ears. If you aren’t sure what a lump or bump is, inspect it with a magnifying glass. Warts, similar skin growths, and nipples can feel like feeding ticks.
Be careful when removing a tick to grasp it with tweezers firmly at the head, as close to the dog’s skin as possible, and slowly pull straight back. Never twist, press, burn, or apply irritating substances like kerosene to an attached tick because doing so can cause the parasite to expel the contents of its digestive tract, creating an unwanted hypodermic effect.
Cleaning a Dog's Tick Bite
Three-percent hydrogen peroxide, the common disinfectant, is recommended for tick bites because the oxygen it contains destroys the Lyme disease bacteria. Hydrogen peroxide can be liberally poured over bites on light-haired dogs (keep away from eyes and apply directly to the skin) but because it’s a bleach, this method is not recommended for black or dark-haired dogs. Using an eyedropper to apply hydrogen peroxide directly to the bite helps prevent unwanted bleaching.
Aromatherapist Kristen Leigh Bell, whose Aromaleigh company specializes in products for dogs and cats, created a “tick tincture” containing the essential oils of thyme (chemotype thujanol), hyssop (chemotype decumbens), and lavender. While studying with Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt at the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy, Bell learned that these oils prevent Lyme disease when applied to tick bites, and she adapted the blend for canine use. “The thyme and hyssop should be the specified chemotypes,” she explains, “because unlike other thyme and hyssop oils, they contain no neurotoxic ketones or harsh and burning phenols. As a result, one can take advantage of their powerful antibacterial and antiviral qualities with very little risk.
“I suggest that dog owners use this blend immediately after removing ticks,” says Bell, “or upon finding a tick bite or other suspicious bite on a dog’s body. It can be applied frequently for a day or two, then daily until the bite heals.” Dog owners can use Aromaleigh’s Canine Tick Tincture or blend their own by combining one tablespoon vegetable base oil (hazelnut, sweet almond, olive, sunflower, jojoba, etc.), six drops thyme (chemotype thujanol), six drops hyssop (chemotype decumbens), and six drops lavender or lavandin essential oil.
“These essential oils are expensive,” Bell warns, “and they are not widely available, but it is important not to substitute less expensive essential oils for use on dogs. The use of essential oils in this manner is not a cure, it’s a preventive, but with daily grooming, careful tick removal, and the application of this blend, many dogs have avoided tick-borne illnesses.”
Bee propolis, sold in health food stores as a cold and flu preventive, is an excellent topical disinfectant and natural antibiotic. Liquid propolis can be applied to bites, cuts, burns, and other injuries with an eyedropper or mixed with small amounts of aloe vera gel to treat larger areas. Reapply frequently for best results, especially on the day of a tick bite and for the next two to three days.
Antibiotics for Lyme Disease
Lyme-infected dogs improve so dramatically on antibiotics that many veterinarians regard their response as a Lyme disease test in itself. If an athletic, healthy dog experiences sudden-onset lameness from inflamed, tender joints, and recovers overnight on antibiotics, it’s probably Lyme disease. “In most cases, you see results in 24 hours,” says Dr. Cappel.
Many veterinarians prescribe antibiotics for two to three weeks, but Dr. Cappel recommends longer treatment. “I find that dogs tend to relapse if you don’t really wipe the bacteria out,” she says, “so I use antibiotics for at least four weeks. I think this does a better job of finding and killing the spirochetes, so the dog is less likely to have a recurrence.”
According to Connecticut veterinarian Mary Wakeman, DVM, “One side effect of antibiotic therapy is actually a sign that the treatment is working. It’s called the Jarish-Herxheimer reaction and it occurs when the body has an inflammatory response to all those dead spirochetes. Its more common name is the ‘die-off’ reaction. Depending on how overwhelmed its system is, a dog can experience one to several days of feeling worse than before.”
More importantly, says Dr. Wakeman, the die-off reaction can affect pregnant bitches, causing miscarriage. “I recommend screening bitches living here in the Northeast with the Lyme Western Blot blood test four to six weeks before they are due in heat,” she says. “to be sure they don’t have Lyme disease.”
Homeopathy for Treating Lyme Disease
Although classical homeopathy does not consider Lyme disease a true illness – like syphilis it is considered a “chronic miasm” caused by an immaterial substance that produces disease by disrupting the vital force – one veterinary homeopath in Connecticut takes a different view. After testing different remedies with limited success, Stephen Tobin, DVM, discovered that Ledum palustre in a 1M potency given three times daily for three days is “about as close as you can get to a specific cure.” According to Dr. Tobin, this method has cured cats, dogs, and horses with recent and established infections, some of which were first treated with antibiotics. In addition, he uses the Lyme disease nosode, a homeopathic preparation of Borrelia burgdorferi 60x as a preventive, giving one dose (one dropperful) daily for one week, then one dose weekly for one month, and one dose every six months indefinitely.
Dr. Tobin says that since he began treating dogs for Lyme disease with homeopathy 10 years ago, he has worked with an estimated 1,000 patients, nearly all with complete success. “There are other homeopathic remedies that treat the symptoms of Lyme disease,” he says, “but I consider Ledum the genus epidemicus for this illness. The 1M strength is not widely sold, but lower strengths are. If your dog develops symptoms, you could try Ledum 30C, and if the symptoms come back, you could order the higher potency. If you spend a lot of time in the woods or have large fields behind your house, Ledum 1M is worth keeping on hand,” he says.
“The nosode is a good investment for dog owners here in the Northeast,” he continues, “for it provides better protection than is generally seen with the vaccine. I don’t claim that the nosode offers 100 percent protection, but it does seem to work in most cases.”
While Dr. Tobin finds that Ledum by itself clears most canine Lyme disease, Dr. Cappel uses the nosode for both prevention and treatment. “I’m convinced that the homeopathics are effective,” she says, “but they take longer to work, and I don’t like to see animals suffer. I give the Lyme disease nosode at the same time as antibiotics, but I continue the nosode for several months. When I had Lyme disease, I used only the nosode for myself because it was my decision, but when my dog had Lyme, I put her on doxycycline and then the nosode.”
As part of her herbal therapy for Lyme disease, Vermont-based master herbalist Hart Brent recommends giving one dose of Ledum 1M as soon as possible after a tick bite, then giving 10 drops of the Lyme disease nosode once per day.
Alternative Lyme Disease Therapies for Dogs
With an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 new cases of human Lyme disease diagnosed annually, it’s not surprising that holistic health practitioners are experimenting with therapies that support or replace conventional treatment, especially because conventional treatment has adverse side effects and is not always effective. Numerous herbal, nutritional, and even aroma-based therapies have helped people with Lyme disease. In fact, because the treatments worked so well, they have been given to Lyme-infected dogs with excellent results.
The following have not been tested in scientifically controlled studies, and they haven’t been tried by the veterinarians I interviewed. However, the information offered by the practitioners interviewed below is compelling. If you are interested in using one of the products described below, ask your holistic veterinarian for help.
D-Lenolate olive leaf extract
Some herbal products are effective alternatives to antibiotics and kill pathogens so effectively that they, too, cause a die-off reaction. Les Nachman, Director of Herbal Technology at East Park Research, which manufactures d-Lenolate olive leaf extract, reports that thousands of human patients have successfully treated their Lyme disease with this product alone.
“D-Lenolate is helpful against any pathogenic involvement,” Nachman says, “and it’s safe for dogs and other animals. Its only side effect is the die-off that occurs when it kills viruses, bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and parasites such as pinworms.”
The recommended human dose is two capsules three times a day, but Nachman recommends giving dogs, even large breeds, substantially less. “For a 50-pound dog I’d start with one capsule twice a day,” he says. “If that doesn’t cause significant improvement, you can increase the dose every day until it does. If a dog doesn’t swallow pills readily, hiding the capsules in food works better than mixing the contents with food due to the powder’s bitter taste.”
This herbal product, developed by the late Hannah Kroeger at Kroeger Herb Products, contains nettle, yerba santa, goldenrod, monolaurin (a nutritional product that is supposed to coat receptor sites on healthy cell walls so that infectious agents cannot bind with the cell), and organic tobacco. The manufacturer alleges the product to be effective in treating active cases of Lyme, including those that are slow to improve or have complications. The recommended human dosage is two or three capsules twice daily. For dogs, use one capsule per 20 to 25 pounds of body weight daily in divided doses.
Teasel root tinture
Margi Flint is a practicing herbalist in Massachusetts whose clients include Lyme disease patients undergoing antibiotic therapy. “Most of these patients respond very well to small doses of a tincture of teasel root (Dipsacus spp.),” she says. “The other part of their treatment is hyperthermia, which means high heat, from frequent saunas or steam baths. The spirochetes hate heat, and both the tincture and the heat chase them out of hiding to where antibiotics can reach them.” While hyperthermia isn’t part of her protocol for dogs (“It’s just too hot,” she says), Flint recommends massaging three drops of teasel tincture into the ear three times per day.
“Place the drops deep in the ear canal or on the skin of the ear flap,” she explains. “Use three drops in either ear three times a day for four to six weeks, then one drop in the ear three times a day for four to six weeks, then take a month off. Repeat the cycle if symptoms recur after that.” Tom Priester, a practicing herbalist in Bradford, New York, used teasel tincture instead of antibiotics to treat his Australian Blue Heelers when they contracted Lyme disease last year. “I gave it to them by mouth between meals,” he says. “The male responded within 24 hours, and the female took even less time. After one week, I reduced the dose from three drops three times a day to one drop three times a day and continued that for six weeks.”
Propolis, Lomatium, and Waltheria Formulas
In Vermont, master herbalist Hart Brent developed a separate protocol for treating people in three different stages of Lyme disease; the protocols can be used by dogs as well as people.
“I use a Stage I (early Lyme disease) protocol as a preventive, as soon as a dog is bitten,” says Brent. “There is such a time delay between the tick bite and the onset of symptoms in dogs that I consider all dogs that show clinical signs as being in Stage II (disseminated Lyme disease) or Stage III (advanced) when they are first diagnosed.”
In Stage I of Brent’s protocol, the patient takes Propolis Formula (tinctures of propolis resin, echinacea root, red root, and licorice root) for four days, followed by three days of Lomatium Formula (lomatium root, witch hazel, elderberry, and prickly ash). This schedule is repeated as needed, usually for at least a month. For a 60-pound dog, Brent recommends 20 to 40 drops of tincture per dose by mouth or applied to the ear flap’s inner skin, which absorbs them quickly. In all three protocols, her “Spirokete” essential oil blend (peppermint, helichrysum, clove, and myrrh oils) is applied twice daily to the ear skin.
For Stage II/Disseminated Lyme disease, which affects the entire body and its organs, she recommends four days of Lomatium Formula alternate with three days of Waltheria Formula (waltheria root, osha root, American ginseng root, and Artemisia annua). For Stage III/Chronic Lyme disease, which is the most advanced stage of the infection, Brent uses four days of Waltheria Formula alternated with three days of Lomatium Formula.
Aromatherapist Suzanne Catty, of Toronto, Canada, recommends treating canine Lyme disease with antibiotic essential oils such as oregano, winter savory, cinnamon bark, thyme (chemotype thymol), and thyme (chemotype thujanol). “Alone or with prescription antibiotics,” she says, “these essential oils kill many kinds of bacteria, including spirochetes. Combine these oils, as available, and give one drop of the blend every three hours for three days, up to a maximum of six drops per day for a 50- to 75-pound dog. Only organically grown or wildcrafted, therapeutic-quality essential oils should be used in this manner. I recommend putting the drops in capsules containing herbs that support detoxification or combining them with a tincture of milk thistle seed and goldenseal root, which also support the liver.”
Catty is one of the world’s leading authorities on hydrosols, which are also called flower waters, herb waters, or hydrolats. These byproducts of the steam distillation process contain trace amounts of essential oils, are far more concentrated than herbal teas but gentle and nontoxic, have significant therapeutic benefits, and are ideal for use with pets. She notes that some hydrosols, such as Greenland moss, cleanse and support the liver while repairing damage done by bacteria, making them ideal for dogs recovering from Lyme disease. Hydrosols can be added to food or drinking water, using one tablespoon hydrosol per 25 to 30 pounds of body weight per day.
Green Terrestrial’s Auntie Lyme tea
This commercially prepared tea contains nettle, red clover, comfrey, calendula, peach leaf, strawberry leaf, mint, burdock seed, and milk thistle seed. These liver-tonic ingredients are recommended as an adjunct in treating active cases and as a support for those previously treated for Lyme disease. Brew a medicinal-strength infusion by steeping one tablespoon dry herbs in one cup boiling water; keep in a covered pan until cool. Add it to your dog’s food or drinking water, using one tablespoon strained tea per 10 pounds of body weight per day. Refrigerate leftover tea for up to a week.
Many other herbs help repair the body, improve energy, and help fight infection. The Chinese herb astragalus is a powerful immune system strengthener. Ashwaganda, long used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine, has anti-inflammatory properties and aids recuperation. Dr. Cappel often adds several drops of an echinacea-goldenseal tincture, or a tincture that combines echinacea, goldenseal, and chaparral, to her protocol. “These are all good immune system stimulants,” she explains, “and although none of them are specifically for Lyme disease, I think they make a difference.”
Lyme Disease Vaccination Controversy
Few holistic veterinarians recommend the Lyme disease vaccine, even in dogs that live where Lyme disease is widespread. “Its side effects are so severe,” says Beverly Cappel, DVM, “that I would much rather treat the disease itself. I don’t recommend the vaccine, don’t carry it, and never use it. When it first came out, we treated dogs (that had been vaccinated elsewhere) for seizures, kidney failure, paralysis, stiff neck, and autoimmune bleeding disorders. Some dogs died and some were permanently damaged. Vaccines don’t always work, so a dog that’s supposedly protected may get the disease anyway. The newer vaccine causes fewer side effects, but it still has some. No matter how you look at it, I think the risks of vaccination far outweigh the benefits.”
Even the traditional veterinary medical community has some issues with the Lyme vaccine.
At the University of California at Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (UCD VMTH), the routine vaccination of household dogs for Lyme disease is not recommended. According to the UCD VMTH Vaccination Protocol for Dogs and Cats, “Lyme Disease is not a proven problem in California, therefore, most dogs are at low risk. Moreover, there is no evidence at this time that infection leads to any significant chronic disease problem in dogs or that infected dogs are public health risks. Vaccine reaction problems occur occasionally and may outweigh health benefits. We do not stock Lyme Disease vaccine.”
The Small Animal Vaccination Protocol published by Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital says that the Lyme may be recommended for CSU client animals on an “at risk” basis, but are not a part of the routine Colorado State University protocol for small animals.
Clearly, the Lyme vaccine should not be administered to every dog, and even people who live in areas with a high concentration of the disease should consider how much exposure to ticks their dogs really have before using the Lyme vaccine. We’d suggest that people living in Lyme “danger zones,” whose dogs are frequently outdoors, use all appropriate tick repellents, examine their dogs daily, and discuss the Lyme vaccine with their holistic veterinarians.
Building Your Dog's Immune System
Finally, I can attest that hands-on therapies that support a dog’s immune system help prevent recurrences. In addition to her early treatment with antibiotics, nutritional supplements, and herbal support therapies, I credit Samantha’s monthly acupuncture treatments and chiropractic adjustments for her athletic, Lyme-free middle age.
Also With This Article
Click here to view "Lyme Treatment and Prevention Resources."
CJ Puotinen, a frequent contributor to WDJ, is the author of, The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, and Natural Remedies for Dogs and Cats. She lives in New York.