Canine Lyme Disease:
Prevention, Diagnosis, Vaccination, and Treatment Issues
By Christie Keith
There are few areas in which my own thinking has undergone more change in the last few years than on the subject of tick borne diseases. I lost a dog to acute renal failure probably caused by a disease known as Lyme nephritis, and diagnosis of Lyme disease has become much more useful and sophisticated in the last couple of years as well. Furthmore, recent research suggests that Lyme is a more serious disease in dogs than previously (and still frequently) believed.
I used to say "no" to treating asymptomatic Lyme titers, and a lot of vets still do say "no." This is because early research indicated that most Lyme positive dogs never have any symptoms of the disease. I have cited this research myself (Why I Don't Use Lyme Disease Vaccines, Meryl P. Littman, VMD, ACVIM; Department of Clinical Studies School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania; Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian, November 1997). All but around 5-10 percent of dogs appeared to contract it and then fight it off and be fine. Clinical observation put this number higher, more like 15-25 percent, but still, most antibody-positive dogs did not show signs of disease. For this reason, most vets, including specialists, did not recommend "treating a titer." They reserved treatment for dogs showing clinical signs of the disease, and frankly, this seemed very sensible to me.
More recent research is suggesting, however, that this approach may not be the best, and I now do believe in treating a titer (as long as it's from the new C6 test that can distinguish between infection and vaccination antibody, if the dog has ever been vaccinated for Lyme).
In a 2005 study of 62 beagles who were infected with Lyme, 39 of the 62 dogs showed some symptoms of Lyme disease. 23 did not. This is substantially more than the 5 percent shown in an earlier study, also with beagles.
On necropsy, almost all the dogs had some signs of Lyme disease in the form of synovitis (inflammation of the joint lining) - including the asymptomatic dogs.
14 of the 62 dogs had very severe signs of Lyme infection, including inflammation of the blood vessels and nerve sheaths. Some dogs had lesions resembling those found in human Lyme disease. (Histopathological Studies of Experimental Lyme Disease in the Dog, J Comp Pathol. 2005 July, Summers BA, Straubinger AF, Jacobson RH, Chang YF, Appel MJ, Straubinger RK., Department of Biomedical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-6401, USA.)
Although this is just one study, and I have some questions about how they controlled for the possibility of co-infection with other tick diseases those ticks might have been carrying, and how the asymptomatic dogs' necropsies compare to the necropsies of dogs not exposed to Lyme, I still think this tips the scales in the direction of treating exposed dogs even if they are asymptomatic.
Diagnosing Lyme in Dogs
There is a new test for Lyme disease in dogs, known as the Canine SNAP 3Dx or the C6 SNAP test, which tests for C6 antibodies to Lyme disease, and also tests for heartworm disease and ehrlichia canis, another tick borne disease. It is done in-office and is extremely accurate in detecting Lyme in dogs. That is because the C6 antibodies are only present due to actual infection, not as a reaction to the vaccine - very helpful for dogs who have been vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.
If you get a positive on the C6 SNAP test, a follow-up test should be done, called the Lyme Quantitative C6 Antibody Test. This has to be sent out. This will establish the baseline values you'll want to see affected by treatment, making it a useful tool for therapy and not just diagnosis.
These tests are only available through IDEXX laboratories.
Treating Lyme in Dogs
Lyme, when caught early, is surprisingly easy to treat in dogs. Some cases become chronic and entrenched and may become incurable, but if you treat most canine cases appropriately and use the C6 quantitative assay test to monitor that treatment, you should be able to return your dog to normal health.
Conventional treatment for Lyme in dogs is an aggressive course of doxycycline or amoxicillin. Most knowledgeable practicioners prefer doxycycline because it will also treat several other tick borne diseases that may exist as undiagnosed co-infections. This website is about holistic care of dogs so I won't linger too long on this approach other than to say this: When I use allopathy, I use it aggressively. There is no point in half-measures. If you decide to use antibiotics, use the highest recommended dose your dog can tolerate and give the longest suggested course your dog can tolerate. Most failure to treat Lyme is the result of too low a dose given for too short a time.
Can Lyme be treated with alternative medicine? Yes, it can be, but it should be treated by a holistic veterinarian with experience treating it. Do not think that this serious infection can be treated at home. It requires expert care.
After treatment, whether with antibiotics or holistic alternatives, you would expect to see a 50 percent or better decrease in antibody levels on the C6 quantitative assay to be able to feel treatment was effective (combined, of course, with a cessation of all symptoms during the treatment itself, if the dog was symptomatic.)
Lyme Vaccination for Dogs
OK, you say, you're convinced me. This is a serious disease. Should I vaccinate my dog for it?
Unfortunately, there is no real nexus between the seriousness of a disease and the effectiveness or safety of a vaccine for that disease. In my opinion, the Lyme vaccine does not actually provide enough benefit to outweigh its substantial risks, despite the seriousness of canine Lyme Disease.
The Lyme vaccine can cause an untreatable form of Lyme disease and, like all bacterial diseases, provides short term immunity. It is not recommended at any of the vet schools in the United States. The human Lyme vaccine was withdrawn from the market. For all the reasons, I think that it's best avoided. But I have one more, very compelling reason.
There are other tick borne diseases that are much more serious than Lyme, for which we have no vaccines. So even if a very safe and effective Lyme vaccine were developed for dogs, having your dog vaccinated for Lyme isn't going to lessen the need for tick prevention. So it's hard to make the risk vs. benefit analysis for Lyme vaccination come out on the benefit side, no matter how you work the math.
For information on Lyme and all other tick diseases in dogs, there is no better resource anywhere than the Tick-L discussion list. Get more info, including many great links, and join here.
Other great websites on tick diseases in dogs:
Lyme Disease: Fact from Fiction