Lyme Disease

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I think the dogs are saying thanks for the thick, soft new bed, Mom!  It keeps us warm on chilly nights.  Holly, on the left, and Otto will enjoy this old comforter to death.  I’m hoping it will last a month before it is tattered and stained.  They are large, active dogs.  Holly is seven and Otto is five.  These farm dogs range all over our acres, peacefully co-existing with chickens, rabbits and horses, swimming in our small river and following me when I go horseback riding.

Somewhere along, Holly picked up a tick that transmitted Lyme disease to her.  Even though we use Frontline every month to kill ticks and give the Lyme vaccination annually, she still got the illness.  That’s because Frontline takes several days to kill ticks once they get on a dog.  During that time, a nymph tick can transmit the Lyme bacteria into the dog’s blood.  Because there are several types of Lyme and the vaccine does not protect for all of them, it is likely Holly contracted a version that the vaccine couldn’t touch.

She started to go downhill very slowly.  Her appetite was not so great.  She left food where she once gulped it down.  At first we thought it was good because she was over-weight and we were trying to get her to lose weight.  But we should have realized her lack of appetite was a problem.  She kept losing weight until one day I noticed that the bones on the top of her skull were protruding.  She also was weak in the hind end and occasionally brought food up.  The symptoms were intermittent.  Sometimes she ate and acted normally.  I suspected the medication she takes to combat her leaking bladder was causing her to be anorexic.  It can have that effect on a small percentage of dogs.

In August we took her to the vet and discussed what could be wrong.  She had normal vital signs.  We talked about various diseases like myasthenia gravis, to which we had lost one German Shepherd in the past, and other wasting illnesses.  We went home with some pain medication and a different drug for the leaky bladder.  The doctor wanted to see if her lameness in the hind end would improve and perhaps her appetite.

By early October it was apparent that she was just getting worse and worse.  Her food often came back up, undigested.  I finally figured out that she was not swallowing it.  This can be a symptom of myasthenia gravis.  The dog will develop megaesophagus due to muscle weakness and inability to swallow.  The food sits in the esophagus which gets large, loose and flabby.  The dog will cough food back up.  We also noticed that Holly no longer held her head up, she walked around with her head hanging.  Her tail no longer had the characteristic curl at the tip.  She dragged her tail along the floor.  Frequently she would stumble on her left front foot.  Her voice had also changed to a high-pitched yip instead of the deep Shepherd bark.  It seemed she had muscle paralysis.

Back we went to the vet.  We told him all the new symptoms. This time when he checked her vital signs, she had a fever elevated about two degrees.  So he tested her for Lyme disease and she came back positive.  He did a barium x-ray and diagnosed megaesophagus.  You could see the food just sitting in her throat instead of going into her stomach.  Thus started a month-long dosing of antibiotics.  I designed a stand for Holly to place her front feet on when she ate so her front end could be elevated at 45 degrees.  This would help the food go down her throat.  Her food was soaked in water and we added canned dog food as well.  Everything had to be mashed to make it slide down easier.

The first few days were hard going.  Getting food and medicine down her throat was difficult, but I kept at it.  Finally she began to swallow again.  Over time she learned to get up on her stool by herself when it was mealtime.  Less and less food came back up.  By the end of the month of antibiotics, Holly had energy again.  The spark had returned to her eyes.  She carried her head normally and her tail got the curl back.

We went to the vet for a recheck and were surprised to learn she had actually lost weight.  The vet suggested feeding puppy food since it has higher protein.  I had been giving her an egg a day and that was upped to two.  After a week or so we noticed that the area at the top of her skull seemed to be filling back in.  She started looking less gaunt.  Holly was able to eat her soaked dog food whole instead of having it mashed.  I began adding in dry food so she could do some chewing to help develop the atrophied muscles of her jaw.  She seemed on the road to recovery.

Then she started regurgitating again.  At first we hoped it was a fluke, but no.  After a couple more episodes, we opted to put Holly back on another month of antibiotics.  Sometimes it takes more than one course of medication to eliminate the disease.  Lyme bacteria live in the spaces between the cells of the body.  It is harder for the immune system to attack and remove them.  Antibiotics also do not permeate so well outside the cells.  Holly has been on the second course of medication for about a week.  Her food mostly stays down.  She has energy and appears to be gaining weight.  We have high hopes that Lyme disease is her only problem and there is no underlying issue.  We will know at the end of this bottle of antibiotics if she truly is improving.

I have learned that the dogs of neighbors on both sides of us also had Lyme disease.  Our woods are full of deer and fields are home to deer mice.  Both these species act as hosts for the deer tick that carries Lyme disease.  My husband and I pull ticks off ourselves, especially in the spring.  This horrible disease is all around us.  We take the precautions available, but sadly there is no 100% method to avoid tick exposure (besides staying in the house!)  We live on a farm and love to walk in the fields, orchards and woods.  We also have to work in those places to keep the farm running.  We can’t hide in the house.

Recently there seems to be increased interest and awareness in the medical community about Lyme disease.  I have personally witnessed the ravages of this illness in people who went undiagnosed for too long.  The bacteria were able to set up deep in the body and wreak havoc.  The experience with Holly has taught me to take any change in health very seriously.  Even if the symptoms are not typical signs of Lyme disease, the infection should be a first consideration as a culprit so treatment can begin as soon as possible.

We have our fingers crossed for Holly.  She is still a fairly young dog and should be able to enjoy several more happy years, if we can just beat this awful disease.

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