The saga of Nubble: Lyme disease hits home

I live less than a half-mile from my parents and their recently-turned-nine Golden retriever, Nubble.


When I first moved back to New Hampshire almost a year ago, I, lacking a dog of my own, immediately appointed myself Nubble’s unofficial recreation director. She had never been a runner, with her daily exercise generally consisting of a walk of close to a mile through Bellamy Park. Within a month or so I was–while recognizing that she was no young Komen–taking her for about four runs a week, covering anywhere from about two miles to as many as five or six. She loved the work, it seemed (working-class breeds are about the only dogs worth having) but I was worried to some degree about her age and overtaxing her.

By mid-summer, I had tabled the idea of running Nubble thanks to the heat and, having scaled back to daily walks, stuck with her and other retrievers’ primary love, swimming. But in August, something started going wrong. One day, out of the blue, as we started out the door, Nubble displayed a limp, clearly favoring her left hindleg. I couldn’t think of anything she’d stepped on or otherwise done to bring this on. In any case, this precipitated a visit to the vet, who, after an X-Ray, believed that Nubble might be suffering from a damaged anterior cruciate knee ligament (actually the cranial cruciate ligament in dogs, but whatever). She was tentatively scheduled for surgery, but then showed a remarkable resurgence over a period of days, calling into question the diagnosis and radiography.

Several weeks later, Nubble experienced a relapse of her symptoms and had a lot of difficulty just getting up from the floor to say hello when friends arrived. It seemed that she might have just been getting older and manifesting the “retriever hips” and rheumatoid arthritis that strike a lot of older, heavier dogs. So, with surgery having been ruled out as an option, Nubble began a completely changed dietary regimen, and started a course of Rimadyl (carprofen, a veterinary NSAID), which essentially functioned as a miracle drug for a few weeks. She also started undergoing biweekly acupuncture and was given a couple of herbal-type medicines.

A couple weeks ago, when I was in Colorado, Nubble decompensated dramatically over the course of a day. She would not even come downstairs for breakfast, which is hardly her style. Both hindlegs had become almost useless. My mom took her to the vet that morning, and the doc noticed that Nubble was extremely feverish ( I would never pick this up in a dog, but then again I’m not exactly a veterinarian).

Every year, as part of her general care, Nubble receives the Lymevax vaccine to prevent against Borreliosis, better known as Lyme disease and involving a vexing range of symptoms, ordinarily starting with arthritis but potentially involving a a host of organ systems. I had believed for some reason that Lyme–transmitted by Ixodes deer ticks and, in humans, sometimes involving a characteristic roundish rash at the site of the tick bite–was not much of a factor in New Hampshire. I was wrong.

Despite Nubble having been vaccinated, it seemed clear to her vet that she was suffering from Lyme disease. The doc gave her doxycylcine, also the treatment of choice in humans, and promised that she would be at least 75% better within a day. She was.

Nubble’s blood test did not suggest that she was infected with the causative agent, a spirochete known as Borrelia burgdorferi. But there are are multiple strains of the bacteria as well as issues with the serology itself. The ELISA screening test is roughly 70% sensitive, meaning that a third of cases might be missed. If someone is flagged as infected (as determined by the presence of antibodies to a particular bug, which is what the ELISA test–also used for HIV and other nasties–is all about), then a Western blot, derived from the polymerase chain reaction, can be used to confirm. But absent an initial positive, all a practitioner has to go on is intuition. Thankfully, Nubble’s vet is uncommonly sharp.

Now, she’s as frisky as I have ever seen her. She’s be on the doxycycline (which I keep wanting to call “dogsy-cycline”) for a while longer, but she has her legs, mobility, and life in general back, and never stopped being the sweetest dog you’ll never meet anyway.

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  1. #1 by Mark C. Chu-Carroll on October 26, 2009 - 9:29 pm

    Glad to hear that it was lyme.

    My own old beloved golden, Nutmeg, was 13 last december. He suddenly started having problems like what you described in March. We had the opposite problem: he’d tested positive for lyme for several years, but never showed symptoms. We’d run him through a couple of courses of doxy, but we kept getting positives.

    So when he started having his mobility problems, we tried another round of doxy. No effect. So they did more tests, and found that he had pancreatic cancer. He died less than a month later.

    It was thoroughly awful. He was a classic golden retriever: sweet, affectionate, patient, playful, and goofy as all heck. Losing him was terrible. But he did live to be 13, which is very old for a golden.

    (And we just brought home a new puppy a couple of weeks ago. Bit sooner than we originally planned, but we found a breeder we liked, and this is when she had a litter.)

  2. #2 by Ed on October 28, 2009 - 9:15 am

    About 5 years ago we lost a 4 year old black Lab mix to Lyme. When we got a new golden, and a new vet, he first suggested Advantage drops every four weeks and later changed that to every three. The dog ran with me every day this summer on the trails and we never found a single tick.

    In the spring when the heat starts to slow the dog we get a “puppy” cut from the groomers. This and a few breaks to let him sit or stand in running water helps keep him going.

  3. #3 by yogibear on October 29, 2009 - 8:25 pm

    Hooray for Nubble
    good doggie.

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