Ticks on Dogs Can Cause Lyme Disease and Other Horrible Conditions

Ticks are extremely difficult to control and prevent, even with the most effective products. Get the info, including the truth versus myths.

ticks on dogs Lyme disease
Ticks on dogs can cause Lyme disease. Photo: superfantastic

I hate ticks. They suck — literally.

I don’t find them disgusting. And I have no problem removing them.

I just hate that every year, tick populations are worse in endemic areas, spreading to more areas of the country and carrying more diseases.

Ticks are extremely difficult to control and prevent, even with the most effective products. The diseases they carry are difficult to diagnose and treat.

Tick-Borne Diseases

  • Lyme disease (the most common)
  • Ehrlichia
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever
  • Babesiosis

Signs That Your Dog Has a Tick-Borne Disease

Symptoms can vary, but a dog with tick-borne disease typically:

  • Is lethargic
  • May be running a fever
  • Has aches and pains
  • Has a limp
  • Has swollen joints
  • Has swollen lymph nodes

There are many other dangers of tick diseases, including changes in the blood (decreased white blood cells, decreased platelets) and kidney disease (Lyme nephritis). Additional blood tests, ultrasound and biopsies may be needed.

Definitive diagnosis can be difficult. Severely decreased platelets, brain and ocular involvement, and kidney disease can be life-threatening. These symptoms are uncommon, thankfully.

Found a Tick on Your Pet? Remove It Now.

If you find a tick on your dog, get rid of it now. Be as vigilant as you can.

You don’t need anything more “high-tech” than your fingers and a tissue, but use tweezers or hemostats if you prefer.

ticks on dogs anaplasmosis
This was a 4DX SNAP test administered to a 13-year-old dog. The greenish-bluish spot on the left is the control. The middle spot shows positive for anaplasmosis. The lightest spot, on the right, shows positive for Lyme disease. Photo: Debora Lichtenberg/Petful

Testing for Lyme Disease and Other Tick-Borne Conditions in Dogs

Most veterinarians have an in-house test for heartworm, Lyme, ehrlichia and anaplasmosis that takes just a few minutes to run, during your exam, with a few drops of blood. It’s called the 4DX SNAP test.

A positive on this test, however, does not mean your pet has active disease.

In fact, most of the dogs I test who come up positive have no symptoms.

  • This test tells you if your dog was bitten by a tick carrying one of the organisms.
  • It does not tell you if your pet got an actual disease from the tick.

So what do you do?

Most experts don’t recommend treating a perfectly healthy, asymptomatic dog who comes up positive on the 4DX test.

So we send out additional tests to a lab to help make a more accurate diagnosis if we suspect a tick-borne disease. The results take several days, and the tests are a bit expensive.

Experts argue about the reliability of some of the additional testing. Usually, when labs are still developing and introducing new and different tests for a disease, it means the definitive test has not yet been found.

Treatment for a Tick-Borne Disease in Dogs

Fortunately, if a pet has clinical tick-borne disease, they usually respond quickly to doxycycline, a common antibiotic.

I put most of these feverish, painful dogs on “doxy” and a pain reliever/anti-inflammatory. The majority of them show improvement in 24 hours or less.

If the dog is showing no symptoms, evidence-based medicine suggests not to treat with antibiotics. In my area, in the Northeast, many dogs would be on antibiotics for their entire lives if we treated based on a positive 4DX test alone.

Lyme Disease Vaccination

There is a Lyme vaccine available, and many experts suggest it be used in endemic areas.

The negatives of the Lyme disease vaccine for dogs:

  • It is not 100% protective.
  • It protects for only a short time, probably less than a year
  • And it is an additional vaccine with the associated risks of any vaccination.
Lyme disease is a serious ailment. By: az1172
Lyme disease is a serious ailment. Photo: az1172

Preventing Ticks

Ticks are devious, tenacious little critters! They are harder to prevent than fleas.

There are topicals like Advantix and Frontline Plus, and collars such as Preventic and Scalibor.

Even if you believe in these products and use them according to the label, you may still find some ticks on your dog.

You say: “This stuff doesn’t work, Doc. And it’s expensive!”

Well, honestly, “this stuff” does work. But nothing is 100% effective against ticks:

  • Say you live in a heavily infested area. You’re using one of these products, and you find 2 ticks on your dog.
  • Without the product, I guarantee you probably would have found 20 ticks.
  • And with your use of the topicals, those 2 ticks should not have attached yet, lessening the possibility of transmitting disease.

“But Those Chemicals Are Horrible!”

If you want to treat your pet totally naturopathically, you will probably not use these products.

But your dog will get more ticks.

And you are putting your dog at greater risk for developing Lyme disease or other tick-borne diseases. It’s the plain and simple truth. This is not my opinion. This is a medically proven fact.

If you use citronella, NEEM and so on, you may deter some ticks, but these products are not very effective. If you are having good luck with a natural preventive, that’s great. If not, consider moving to northern Canada.

I occasionally hear people claim that vets recommend these products only to make a profit, which is a myth. The products are available over-the-counter now, and some of the major online pharmacies and similar companies have had these products (through corrupt and illicit practices) for a long time.

Vets are not counting on these products as profit-makers. Recommending them actually loses money for vets, in a sick sort of way.

It’s much more lucrative for the vet to have pets sick from fleas or ticks and treat them than it is to recommend prevention.

But we want to keep your pets healthy, free of parasites and free of the diseases they cause. It’s our job to recommend a flea and tick prevention program based on risks and the pet’s health.

Evidence-Based Truth About Frontline, Advantix, Etc.

Despite what you have read on the internet, there is no evidence to suggest that Frontline (Fipronil) or Advantix (Imidacloprid/permethrins) cause cancer or other serious diseases. These products have been around for decades.

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center does not consider these products dangerous or toxic if used properly. The Preventic collar for dogs (containing amitraz) is dangerous if eaten and should be used with caution around young children. The product is labeled appropriately.

Your dog may have an allergic reaction to these medications, as is true of any medicine. That is a risk you may not want to take, but most of these reactions are mild and don’t require treatment.

In thousands of applications, I have had just 2 dogs develop sores at the application site that needed treatment. (The humans had let their dogs scratch at the application area for a week before seeking help.)

A higher percentage of dogs have a transient itching sensation that usually goes away in a few minutes. I believe I have had a single dog out of thousands who was neurologically impaired for 3 weeks after the dog’s person applied a product that hadn’t been purchased from a vet. The dog recovered quickly.

If you have to use a tick preventive, I feel much better about the current generation of products than I did with the older chemicals we used in the 1980s:

  • The old sprays and dips were toxic back then.
  • The house sprays were toxic back then.
  • And they weren’t that effective.

The poor animals still had fleas and ticks, horrible itching and Lyme disease. People were forced to spray and bomb their homes, exposing them to lingering insecticides in their environment.

Flea and tick control is much safer and more effective today — for you and your pets. Take advantage of them.

Make the Decision That Feels Right for You

I know some of you are out there spouting the evils of these “TOXIC, SCARY, CARCINOGENS,” swearing these products are going to kill your pets. There is no proof of this — and there is abundant evidence that they are safe.

Proving that a product causes cancer requires many years of dedicated research.

Frontline and Advantage have now been used on dogs since the 1990s with no rise in cancers or syndromes that we can identify in dogs or in humans.

Since these products are used on crops, studies have been done on their safety. Some rats fed massive doses have a higher incidence of thyroid cancer. Making the leap from feeding rats huge amounts to placing a small amount on your dog topically are very different scenarios.

Of course, the FDA’s approval does not mean that we will not learn more about potential toxicity or carcinogenic effects in the future. There is a risk with every medication, every vaccination, every supplement, every topical.

What we need to do is a make a decision about risk versus benefit, and go from there.

In non-endemic tick areas, if you can control fleas and ticks without the use of these products, that’s wonderful. Your pet is not at great risk.

If you are in a tick-endemic area, no matter how carefully you go over your pet with a fine-tooth comb once or twice a day, you will not find all the ticks on your dog, particularly the tiny deer ticks.

How I Got Lyme Disease — And Lost My Dog to Lyme Disease

When I myself contracted Lyme disease, I never found the tick — just the rash.

We don’t see the rash on dogs. Since dogs can’t tell you when they feel a tick, or eat the tick, or develop the rash, I suggest trying to prevent ticks as best you can.

My best dog, Bruno, a beautiful 80-pound, black-and-white Border Collie mix, died of kidney failure due to Lyme nephritis. He had come to me as a stray and already had the disease.

Lyme nephritis is not the typical course for most Lyme-positive dogs. He wasn’t one of the lucky ones. He responded to treatment somewhat, but irreversible damage had already been done to his kidneys.

Bruno was special — the human kind of canine.

He was brilliant. He liked to stare at me. That’s how he would know what I was thinking. Bruno knew when I was so tired it would only be a short walk that night. He knew when we were driving to the lake for a great stick-throwing marathon.

And when he could no longer run into the lake water, watching sadly as the stick made ripples at a distance he could no longer swim, he told me it was time to leave this Earth.

I told him I was sorry I wasn’t around earlier in his life … to protect him from dying of Lyme disease.

The Sad Truth

Stories like this are always tough to hear, and they reiterate the need for tick prevention in all tick-endemic areas.

Despite our best efforts, the sad truth is that nothing is 100% effective in preventing tick-borne diseases.

I am still a proponent of using state-of-the-art tick preventives because they save thousands of dogs’ lives. Unfortunately, there are still some tragic cases out there, but these are few and far between.

According to recent data on Lyme disease, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are predisposed to Lyme nephritis. We don’t know why.

Happily, fewer than 2% of dogs who test positive for Lyme disease develop nephritis, so it is rare.

Ticks are difficult — if not impossible — to eradicate from your backyard. Photo: Andy

7 Myths About Lyme Disease

Here are a few of the most common misconceptions:

Myth #1: We know all there is to know about Lyme disease.

Physicians and veterinarians alike still have many unanswered questions.

Diagnosis, treatment and prognosis are all still wading out there in murky medicine land.

Myth #2: Lyme disease is confined to certain geographic areas.

Every year, Lyme and other tick-borne diseases manage to spread farther and wider.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says Lyme is now found in 260 or so countries.

In the United States, Lyme has spread from the Northeast down beyond Virginia, has hopped over to many parts of the Midwest and is cropping up on the West Coast. Lyme cases have been reported in half of all U.S. counties.

So what does this mean?

Well, you and your dog are apparently safe only if you are living inside the Great Lakes or the ocean.

Despite their singular appearance, ticks are often difficult to locate on dogs. Photo: acidpix

Myth #3: Ticks can be eradicated.

Both environmentally and on warm bodies, ticks are devious little critters.

Spraying a yard or outdoor area may lessen but not completely get rid of ticks.

Likewise, any tick repellant for you or tick-control product for your pets is not 100% effective. People get upset when they use an effective topical product or collar and they find a tick. As I said earlier, if these folks found 1 or 2 while using a product, they would have found 20 without the tick-control product.

Ticks and tick exposure can be controlled and lessened — but not obliterated.

Myth #4: Ticks are seasonal.

Ticks may prefer cooler, damper weather and don’t bug us as much in the freezing cold or the hot summer. But don’t let this fool you — I have had a tick on me or my dog in January as well as in July.

Ticks celebrate all seasons and don’t discriminate when looking for their next meal.

Myth #5: Finding a tick on your dog is easy.

Even on a 5-pound, thin-haired Maltese, for example, a deer tick can be on your dog long enough to infect without you finding it. They are often tiny and neutral in color.

Learn a little more about Lyme disease in dogs in this video:

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Myth #6: Tick populations are the same one year to the next.

We never know how bad the tick population or prevalence of Lyme disease will be in certain seasons or areas.

Many factors affect the incidence of Lyme disease.

Sometimes a season is particularly bad in the Northeast, for example, because of the huge mouse population a few months earlier. Infected mice infect ticks — and mice seem pretty willing to provide their body as a home to 40–50 ticks at a time.

The more infected mice, the more infected ticks in the year to come.

Myth #7: Chronic Lyme disease is common.

If not diagnosed early, Lyme disease can cause severe secondary problems like arthritis and kidney damage.

Treatment can help only so much. Often, we don’t know the extent.

The good news?

Most dogs and humans, when treated early, are successfully treated for Lyme disease. The trick is catching clinical Lyme disease early, particularly in dogs, and beginning treatment.

I have been talking with my clients about Lyme disease almost since the disease was discovered, and I still have to tell them there is much we don’t know. Researchers in the human and veterinary field continue to be perplexed about how this big bugger of a disease can best be diagnosed and treated.

There is no perfect way to avoid contact with Lyme, no foolproof diagnostic test and no universally accepted treatment.

Please find out if there is a risk in your area and protect your pets as best you can.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed April 12, 2017.