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Ask The Doctor

Q.  My Golden Retriever, Bart, tested positive for Lyme disease this spring when my veterinarian did his annual heartworm and lyme disease screening test.  Bart seems totally happy and healthy.  What does this mean and should I do anything?  Monica T.

A.  Monica, I’m sorry to hear that Bart tested positive for Lyme disease.  This means that at some point Bart was bitten by a tick infected with the Lyme disease bacteria.  Bart most likely became infected with Lyme disease at that time.  The Lyme bacteria caused Bart’s immune system to develop an antibody reaction to try to rid the body of the Lyme disease organism -causing him to test positive.  Unfortunately, the dog’s immune system is not good at destroying the Lyme bacteria and infections often last for years – or for the lifetime of the dog.  There is currently no accurate test to tell us if your dog is going to become ill with Lyme disease from this infection.  Some infected dogs never show signs of illness.  Some infected dogs become ill with joint infections – causing them to become lethargic and painful on one or more legs.  This is the most common symptom we see.  These cases usually respond well to antibiotics and the dog is often clinically back to normal within 48 hours.  A less common, but much more serious condition we see occurs when antigen/antibody complexes made by the dog in response to the infection, attack the kidneys, causing an irreversible kidney disease called Lyme Nephritis.  Lyme Nephritis is almost always fatal in dogs.  At this time there is no test available that will tell us which infected dogs will develop Lyme Nephritis.  In the last 15 months our clinic diagnosed 5 dogs with Lyme Nephritis.  All 5 of these dogs were in kidney failure at the time of our diagnosis and did not recover.  While this is a small number of dogs, it is heartbreaking for the owners and for our doctors and staff to see these pets suffering from this incurable disease.  One additional fact you should know is that Labradors and Golden Retrievers are much more likely to develop the deadly kidney form of Lyme disease than other breeds.  Experts are divided on whether or not we should be treating these positive dogs.  Dr. Littman, a Lyme expert at the University of Pennsylvania says we should not treat positive dogs unless they show signs of disease.  Dr. Goldstein, a Lyme expert from Cornell University feels that treating positive dogs that are asymptomatic (positive for lyme but without symptoms), may prevent these dogs from becoming ill in the future.  I suggest you have a discussion with your veterinarian and make a decision together on whether you should treat Bart preventatively or watch him carefully for signs of Lyme disease.  Good luck with Bart.

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