Today is the last edition in our canine vaccination series, and we’re going to talk about the Lyme disease vaccine. This is another situational immunization. Some dogs benefit from it; others don’t. In this case, the determination is based on a dog’s exposure to the type of tick that carries Lyme disease in endemic parts of the country.

The first question we need to answer is, “Does the dog live in or travel to areas where Lyme disease is prevalent?” The regions of greatest concern are the northeastern U.S., northern mid-Atlantic region, upper Midwest, and the northern California coast.

Next, we have to ascertain whether infection is likely. Lyme disease is caused by Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that are transmitted from one animal to another through the bites of Ixodes (deer) ticks. The ticks usually pick up the bacteria from infected wildlife (e.g., deer and rodents) and need to be attached to a dog for at least 48 hours before Lyme disease can be transmitted. The ticks that carry Lyme disease are very small and can be difficult to find and remove however.

Complicating the decision of whether or not to vaccinate is the fact that many dogs who are exposed to Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria do not develop symptoms of Lyme disease. On the other hand, those that do can become very sick. Symptoms may include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Painful joints and muscles
  • Lameness that can wax and wane and shift between legs
  • Kidney disease in chronic cases

It is important to note that the “bulls-eye” rash that commonly affects people with Lyme disease is not frequently seen in dogs.

Once a dog contracts Lyme disease, it is usually impossible to completely eliminate the bacteria from his body. A long course of antibiotics (e.g., doxycycline) can make many dogs symptom free, but these individuals often still have low-level infections and are at risk for future kidney disease.

The first line of defense against Lyme (and all the other tick-borne diseases) is a rigorous tick control program that makes use of effective monthly spot-on products and/or collars. Owners should also check dogs daily for parasites when they are in tick-infested areas and remove any that are found. The Lyme vaccine does not provide complete protection against the disease, but is still worth considering when the risk of infection is high. Dogs 12 weeks of age or older should initially receive two vaccines 2-4 weeks apart and an annual booster thereafter.

For the sake of completeness, I feel I should mention one vaccination — canine corona virus — that I never recommend for client-owned animals. In very young puppies (typically 6-9 weeks of age), canine corona virus can cause a few days of mild, self-limiting diarrhea. There are a couple of problems with vaccination, however. First, since we generally start vaccinating puppies at around 7-8 weeks of age, the risk of disease has passed by the time immunity kicks in. Also, the disease is so mild that there’s really no need to protect dogs against it.

Finally, a simple answer to whether or not a dog needs a vaccine!

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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