by Stephanie Eckelkamp
If you have a pet that spends any time outdoors — regardless of where you live — you should be thinking about Lyme disease prevention. Not only to protect your pet from a potentially debilitating illness, but to protect yourself as well. After all, your furry friends can carry ticks indoors, where they may fall off and eventually make their way to the next warm body — which could be you.
As far as different pets are concerned, Lyme disease is mainly a problem for dogs. “While cats have been shown to become infected in a laboratory setting, Lyme disease in cats has never been reported in the ‘real world,’” says small animal veterinarian Natalie Marks, DVM. (Horses can be infected, too, but this article covers household pets.)
Canine cases of Lyme disease (much like human cases) are on the rise — both in the Northeast, where it has long been endemic, as well as in regions less commonly associated with Lyme, such as Iowa, North Dakota, North Carolina, and Tennessee, according to a 2019 study. Not to mention, a range of other tick-borne diseases can infect dogs, too, and they have a wide reach. “We used to think that tick disease was pretty regional — isolated to the Northeastern and Southeastern United States — but due to climate change, migration of ticks on hosts and other dogs, and other factors, we find tick disease almost everywhere,” explains Dr. Marks.
So, how can you best protect your pup from Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses? We consulted three veterinarians — conventional and holistic — for some well-rounded advice. Below, we break down: natural and pharmaceutical strategies for prevention, signs and symptoms of Lyme disease in dogs, and how to support your pet during treatment.
Note: Always consult with your own veterinarian before making important decisions about your pet’s care. Depending on factors like your dog’s size, age, and health status, their ideal Lyme disease prevention and treatment protocol might look very different.
9 Strategies to Protect Your Pets from Lyme Disease
1. Know What Areas Carry the Greatest Risk.
As mentioned above, it doesn’t really matter what state you live in — Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases are likely nearby. But what environments are the riskiest? Tall brush, piles of leaves, wooded areas (even if you stay on the hiking path), marshy areas, seaside grasses and even the nearby sand on the beach, and communal dog spaces like dog parks can all carry an elevated risk of tick exposure for your dog and you, says Dr. Marks.
Lyme-carrying black-legged ticks, or deer ticks, have even been found in urban settings like well-maintained public parks. How? When critters such as white-footed mice, chipmunks, and deer scurry through, they can drop infected ticks in their wake. Additionally, ticks aren’t just a risk in summer — they tend to be quite active in spring and fall months as well, so be mindful about potential tick exposure (for your pet and yourself) year-round.
2. Perform Daily Tick Checks — and Don’t Miss These Sneaky Spots!
Preventing tick bites altogether is the most effective way to prevent Lyme disease in your dog. This is why tick checks are essential — even if you’re using other preventative measures such as medications and the canine Lyme vaccine (more on those later).
“A pet parent should be checking their dog at minimum once daily but also after being present in higher risk areas,” says Dr. Marks. Run your fingers all over your pet, feeling them for bumps and honing in on key areas. “I recommend looking on the feet, especially between the toes, inside and on the ears, around the lips and eyes, and under the tail near the rectum,” she adds.
You’ll have to take some extra time with long-haired dogs. Giving your dog a once-over with a flea comb is also a good strategy. “These have tiny teeth that can pick up fleas and ticks that are close to the surface of the skin,” says Shawn Messonnier, DVM, owner of Paws & Claws Holistic Pet Center and author of The Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats.
And if you do find an attached tick? Remove it ASAP — by pulling slowly and firmly upward with a pair of fine-point tweezers. By getting the tick off quickly, you may reduce the risk of Lyme disease transmission — it’s not clear exactly how long it takes in dogs (or humans, for that matter), but some data suggests it’s less than 16 hours. “Then, about a month later, get your dog tested for tick-borne diseases,” recommends Dr. Messonnier. “It takes several weeks for antibodies to form, so testing too early may result in false negative results.”
3. Clear Your Yard of Clutter + Consider Topical Lawn Treatments.
Even if you don’t hit the woodland trails with your dog, they could be at risk simply by sprawling out on your lawn. Do your best to clear out the clutter where ticks and tick-carrying animals can hide. Consider the following strategies to reduce the tick population in your yard:
- Mow your lawn frequently.
- Clear out tall grasses and brush surrounding your home.
- Rake and remove leaves from your yard.
- Construct a fence to keep out deer and other animals.
- Remove anything (trash, old furniture, etc.) where ticks and small rodents could hide.
- If your lawn abuts a wooded or grassy area, put down a 3-foot barrier of wood chips or gravel to reduce tick migration.
- Stack firewood neatly and in a dry area to discourage rodents from setting up camp.
You can also try a variety of topical lawn treatments to help kill off ticks. But you want to choose something that has a minimal negative impact on the environment and doesn’t harm your pet. Here are some pet-safe and potentially effective options to consider, according to Dr. Messonnier:
Food-Grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE)
Non-toxic DE is a powder made from crushed-up fossils of tiny aquatic organisms. Sprinkling it on your lawn may be effective, as it causes insects to dry out and die by absorbing the moisture (oils and fats) from the cuticle of their exoskeleton. It’s effective as long as it’s dry, so regular application is necessary.
These natural soil-dwelling microscopic organisms can infect (or “parasitize”) insects during certain life stages. According to Arbico Organics, a provider of biological pest control, it’s best to apply nematodes early in the tick season and reapply periodically throughout the year when ticks are active in your area. They work by targeting engorged female ticks, which prevents additional egg-laying in the area. But because they don’t target all ticks, it’s smart to follow up nematode treatments with insecticidal sprays.
Pyrethrin-Based Insecticidal Sprays
Pyrethrins are compounds derived from chrysanthemum plants that have demonstrated the ability to kill and repel ticks, including the black-legged ticks. Pyrethrin sprays have been shown to reduce tick populations after application but should be reapplied every few weeks. These are generally safe for dogs, but at certain concentrations, they may cause problems for cats. With any insecticide spray, always double-check the product with your vet, and — to be extra safe — keep pets off the treated area for at least 24 hours after application (or longer, if advised), suggests Jenniffer Walker, DVM, of Veterinarians.org.
Essential Oil-Based Insecticidal Sprays
There are several pet-safe and child-safe essential oil-based products for lawn application on the market, featuring ingredients such as peppermint oil and eugenol derived from cloves (like this product with a convenient hose spray attachment). A variety of essential oils and their plant compounds have demonstrated tick-repelling and insecticidal properties in lab studies, but more research is needed to determine optimal formulations and how effective they are in real-world applications.
4. Talk to Your Vet about Tick Preventatives.
The strategies above aren’t fool-proof, particularly if you live in a high-risk area for ticks. And because the consequences of delayed Lyme disease treatment can be debilitating or fatal for your pet (especially if the disease progresses to kidney issues such as Lyme nephritis), many veterinarians recommend year-round pharmaceutical flea and tick preventatives for dogs.
The most popular options are oral flea and tick preventative tablets or chews, which essentially make your dog’s blood poisonous to these pests. When the tick feeds, they ingest the medicine and then die and fall off before they have time to transmit disease. Topical tick preventatives applied to the skin and tick collars are also available, and each has pros and cons, so talk to your vet about your options. “There are several effective options, and I always like to discuss what will work best for a family’s lifestyle, outdoor activities, and individual dog’s health,” says Dr. Marks. These products are effective against all ticks, so in addition to Lyme, they help prevent things like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichia, anaplasma, and babesia.
Even holistic veterinarians like Dr. Messonnier recommend these products in certain situations, but he also entertains more natural options. “At our practice, we do minimal chemical [pharmaceutical] control for ticks and always discuss a more natural approach, whether it’s flea and tick powders containing diatomaceous earth or sprays and collars that use herbal essential oils,” he says, adding that this natural approach is always very personalized to the pet and their specific needs. “But if a pet is particularly susceptible to ticks — let’s say I have a client who has a hunting dog or a cabin in the woods — we might decide to use some chemical medications in the short-term based on the dog’s exposure.”
Using essential oil-based tick sprays for dogs (similar to the essential oil-based lawn sprays) in addition to conventional tick preventatives is generally not a problem and may be beneficial, especially if your pup is outdoorsy and you want an extra tool to prevent them from dragging ticks into your home. Their effectiveness has not been verified, but they may work by repelling and potentially killing ticks before they can attach. Because ticks climb, rather than jump, be sure to apply these sprays to your dog’s paws, legs, and underbelly.
Bottom line: Decisions on the optimal tick preventive treatment for your dog should only be made after having a conversation with your veterinarian. If you want to know whether natural treatments are a viable option based on where you live and your dog’s level of exposure, consider talking with a holistic or integrative veterinarian with expertise in this area.
5. Discuss the Canine Lyme Vaccine with Your Vet.
Not every dog is a candidate for the canine Lyme vaccine (it’s not a core vaccine such as rabies or distemper), but it could be given to any dog after 8 weeks old, depending on their lifestyle and risk factors. It is not, however, a substitute for a flea and tick preventative medication, as it doesn’t do anything to prevent other tick-borne diseases that can affect dogs.
“The technology behind Lyme vaccination has significantly improved to target multiple proteins, making it more selective, less reactive, and more effective overall,” says Dr. Marks. “But we always look at each pet as an individual before we recommend a vaccine protocol. With the Lyme vaccination, I want to know what the dog’s daily routine is, if ticks are endemic in the area, if they’ve had previous tick disease, and if they are on a consistent flea and tick preventative.”
6. Watch for Early Signs of Lyme Disease.
Even if you don’t specifically recall your dog being bitten by a tick, you should regularly monitor them for signs of Lyme disease. Keep in mind: Only about 5-10% of infected dogs actually go on to display clinical symptoms of Lyme disease (some dogs can remain asymptomatic and healthy), but these symptoms may take 2-5 months to show up, so it’s important to stay alert. According to Dr. Marks, some of the more common clinical signs of Lyme disease include:
- Decreased appetite
- Loss of energy
- Lameness (e.g., shifting legs)
- Walking as if on eggshells
- Swollen joints
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Kidney complications (often found via a urinalysis showing protein in the urine — your vet would be the one to spot this)
If you notice any of these, promptly book an appointment with your veterinarian to get your dog evaluated and tested for Lyme disease. If positive, swift treatment can make all the difference in avoiding serious complications. If treatment is delayed, Lyme disease may result in kidney failure, endocarditis (a life-threatening infection of the heart valves), meningitis, encephalitis, and permanent arthritis in multiple joints, says Dr. Marks.
7. Look into Regular Lyme Testing.
Depending on where you live, your dog may be a candidate for an annual SNAP 4DX Blood Test, which tests for Lyme, anaplasma, ehrlichia, and heartworm. Many veterinary offices in Lyme-endemic areas like New England perform this test annually on dogs, regardless of their vaccination status or whether they are on preventative medications. Regular testing in Lyme-endemic hotspots can be beneficial for avoiding serious complications since — for many dogs — the early signs of Lyme disease may be mild and easily missed, according to Dr. Marks.
Specifically, the SNAP 4DX test detects antibodies against a protein called C6 that’s unique to the borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme. These antibodies can be detected as soon as four weeks post-infection (even before symptoms arise) and up to several years after infection. A positive result means your dog has been bitten by an infected tick at some point, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have an active infection. Sometimes — especially if no obvious Lyme symptoms are present — a veterinarian will follow up with a quantitative C6 (QC6) test to determine if levels of the C6 antibody are high enough to justify treatment. Your vet may also assess your pet’s urine for the presence of protein, an indicator of declining kidney function, which can be a complication of canine Lyme disease.
8. Don’t Be Afraid of Antibiotics, but Do Try to Offset Their Negative GI Effects.
Both conventional and holistic veterinarians agree that antibiotics (typically doxycycline) play a crucial role in successful canine Lyme treatment — but some dogs may not need them.
If a dog tests positive for Lyme with a SNAP 4DX test, a vet will often recommend antibiotics if they also display (or have recently displayed) clinical symptoms of Lyme disease, if they have signs of deteriorating kidney function, or if they have elevated C6 on a QC6 test. “For asymptomatic patients, a high C6 level could support the need to treat before possible signs of disease,” says Dr. Marks. In some cases, a vet may even prescribe 2-4 weeks of prophylactic antibiotics if a dog has been bitten by a tick but can’t be tested for some reason, such as if a family is camping or traveling without access to a vet.
For dogs that test positive on a SNAP 4DX test but don’t have any of the above warning signs, however, a veterinarian may choose to take a “watch and wait” approach and only treat if something develops, says Dr. Messonnier. If all signs point to your pet being healthy, “discuss the risks and benefits of treatment and develop a monitoring plan with your veterinarian,” suggests Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Some dogs may only need about a month of antibiotic treatment, while others with more significant disease could be on them for several months. If you’ve ever been on antibiotics this long, you know it can wreak serious gastrointestinal havoc — and the same goes for your pet. “Concurrent probiotics are a great idea to help replenish natural bacterial cultures that can be wiped away from long-term antibiotics,” says Dr. Marks. Digestive enzymes, which help your dog’s gut break down food and properly absorb nutrients, may be beneficial as well.
Not only can supporting your pet’s microbiome ease issues like diarrhea, but it’s also important for Lyme recovery. “The gut is the biggest part of the immune system, so if you ignore that — or you have a diseased part of that — you really have a diseased immune system, and your pet is not going to have a normal immune response,” says Dr. Messonnier.
9. Know That Some Dogs May Require Additional Support.
Similar to some humans who get Lyme, some dogs will need more than antibiotics to heal fully — and this is where seeking additional guidance from a holistic or integrative veterinarian may help. For example, Dr. Messonnier uses herbal therapies and supplements to help reduce inflammation, gently detoxify, support the immune system, and optimize cellular enzyme systems and mitochondrial function — and this could greatly assist in Lyme recovery.
“This is a disease where a balanced approach is really needed,” says Dr. Messonnier. “If my patients need drugs, that’s fine, but that’s just half the treatment. If you ignore the other half, you’re not fully supporting the pet’s needs.”
Every holistic vet will have their preferred protocols and formulations, so we won’t get into too many specifics here. But interestingly, some specific herbs found in the products Dr. Messonnier uses include astragalus, cordyceps, and green tea — which are some of the same herbal therapy recommendations for optimal health and cellular support in humans to support recovery from chronic Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is on the rise in dogs, and when left untreated, it can lead to potentially life-threatening complications such as kidney disease and endocarditis. The good news: There are many great preventative strategies to help your pet avoid infection, from natural lawn treatments to thorough tick checks to prescription tick preventatives. Plus, familiarizing yourself with basic information regarding testing and vaccines, early signs of Lyme, and the fact that conventional and holistic veterinary wisdom can coexist will help you ask the right questions and seek the best possible care for your dog.
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