Your dog can get a Lyme vaccine. You can't. Why? - (5/14/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Lisa came into the pharmacy to get a refill. She asked the pharmacist, “How come my puppy, Chopper, can get a Lyme vaccine, but I cannot?” The pharmacist explained that there was once a human vaccine to prevent Lyme disease. In 1998, a drug company introduced LYMErix®, a vaccine that prevented approximately 80% of Lyme infections. Hundreds of thousands of people received it. That is, until 2002 when the manufacturer voluntarily withdrew it from the market.  

“If it worked so well, why was it pulled off the shelves?” questioned Lisa. The pharmacist said that, at the time, the Lyme vaccine came with a slew of limitations. First, the vaccine efficacy of 80% meant that 20% of fully vaccinated individuals could still get Lyme disease. Second, achieving full protection required 3 vaccine doses spread out over a year. Third, because of ethics laws, young children could not be included in clinical studies to see if the vaccine worked on this population, which is at high risk for developing Lyme disease. Hence, they could not legally receive the vaccine. In addition, the vaccine was effective only against the predominant Borrelia strain of the tick without conferring protection against other tick types. Finally, no one was sure how long the vaccine protected individuals, implying that recipients might need booster shots as often as every year to prevent waning immunity. 

Then, there was the safety profile. Twenty years ago, people began to question whether vaccines, in general, had long-term side effects. A widely publicized 1998 paper linked vaccines to autism. Even though the paper was proven to be an elaborate fraud – with the author of the study losing his medical license – the public could not be dissuaded from the erroneous idea that vaccines were harmful. Thus, the anti-vaxxer movement began. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed the human studies that allowed the vaccine to be sold to the public and ultimately revealed that study subjects who got the vaccine experienced significantly more side effects than those subjects who did not. 

Public concern intensified, further induced by anti-vaccine groups and class action lawsuits, resulting in increasingly low demand for the vaccine and its eventual withdrawal from the market. These events dampened further interest in the development of other Lyme disease vaccines by vaccine companies. The consequence of this continues today with significant illness and cost due to Lyme disease.

“Why is there a Lyme vaccine for dogs? Is it safe?” Lisa asked. The pharmacist pointed out that the need for a canine Lyme vaccine is controversial. Dogs with healthy immune systems can fight off the bacterial infection naturally and never experience symptoms. If the infection takes hold, dogs may suffer heart, kidney, joint, and nervous system disorders, or even death. Treatment options and results vary, but the proper antibiotics can successfully treat the disease, fully restoring the dog's health without relying on the vaccine. Yet, the vaccine industry perseveres. After all, there is money to be made!

Several types of canine Lyme vaccines exist. They vary in how they work with some more dangerous than others. Ask your veterinarian. Also, a Lyme vaccine does not protect your dog from other tick-borne illnesses like Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The pharmacist suggested that an insecticidal product such as a collar or another flea and tick product would better protect Chopper. Lisa agreed that a talk with her vet would determine the best way to defend Chopper against tick-borne diseases. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Read more at


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