Lyme disease is caused by a type of bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, and is spread by the bites of ticks.
Borrelia is a cork-screw looking bacteria, that has a remarkable ability to change its protein coat to hide from its host’s immune system. It wears one coat to hide from the immune system of a tick that carries it; and then it actually changes its coat to go into a mammal and hide from its immune system.
This ability to change coats, and the fact that it sequesters itself inside of cells where the immune system can not see it, means that once a Borrelia infection is established, you are never going to get rid of it. Humans and dogs infected with Lyme diseases are infected forever.
Interestingly enough, cats have been shown to have antibodies to Borrelia, meaning the bacteria did get into their system; but no cats have been recorded to have Lyme disease.
When a human gets a tick bite with Borrelia, the chance that they will get a permanent infection is 80%. When a dog gets a tick bite with Borrelia, its chance of a permanent infection is 20%.
Of the 20% of dogs that get Lyme disease from an infected bite, most will show a flu-like episode first as the bacteria spread into the bloodstream (that episode may be mild and therefore missed); and then months later, they can have a bout of fever and severe joint pain as the Borrelia establish themselves in tissues, including joint tissues.
The more severe form of Lyme disease involves kidney damage, and may occur in some of the infected dogs, even if they did not go through a bout of joint pain.
The best option is NOT to get infected in the first place:
- Vaccinate your dog for Lyme Disease – the vaccine produces antibodies against both the coat used in the tick, to neutralize the Borrelia still in the tick’s belly; and, the vaccine produces antibodies against the coat used in mammals, so that any Borrelia that do make it to transmission will be neutralized as soon as they enter the dog, before they can find cells to hide in.
- Use a fast-kill tick preventive (such as Nexgard or Bravecto) that makes the tick die in a few short hours, before the Borrelia has had a chance to change coats and go to the salivary glands of the tick (which takes 24-48 hours). This will also help protect against the tick-borne diseases for which no vaccine exists, such as Anaplasmosis and Ehrlichiosis.
- Inspect your dog for ticks regularly – not just after a walk in the woods, ticks can be in your garden plants too. (See here) Removing ticks can get them off you dog even faster that a tick preventive would (see How To Remove Ticks)