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Ehrlichiosis in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Ehrlichiosis can impact dogs that have been bitten by ticks infected with the disease. Early detection and treatment is critical Our South Charlotte vets list ehrlichiosis symptoms in dogs, and explain how the disease is detected and treated.

What is ehrlichiosis in dogs?

If a tick infected with ehrlichiosis bites a dog, the disease can infect your canine companion. Also referred to as E. canis, ehrlichiosis is considered endemic to the southeastern and southwestern states. It is often found in brown ticks, which reside throughout the United States and Canada.

Ehrlichia are bacteria that infect and live within hosts’ white blood cells. The bacteria are spread from host to host by tick bites and are difficult to remove, since most antibiotics will not reach the inside of the cell where they live.

What are signs of ehrlichiosis?

We can classify symptoms of canine ehrlichiosis into three stages: early disease (acute phase), sub-clinical (meaning your dog won’t display outward symptoms of the disease), and clinical or chronic (long-standing infection).

Acute Phase

During these 2 to 4 weeks, the infection will either be eliminated or your dog will progress to the sub-clinical phase. Symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Neurological disturbances (unsteady on feet or meningitis)
  • Bleeding disorders (spontaneous hemorrhage or bleeding)

Sub-Clinical Phase

While the organism is present in this phase, your dog may not exhibit any outward signs of the disease. For that reason, it’s often considered the worst phase as the disease progresses undetected.

A blood sample may be necessary to reveal prolonged bleeding from the puncture site. If the organisms are not eliminated now, your pup’s infection may move to the stage of clinical ehrlichiosis.

Clinical ehrlichiosis occurs when the immune system is unable to eliminate the organism in one of the other stages. This stage can lead to a number of serious symptoms, including:

  • Bleeding episodes
  • Anemia
  • Eye problems
  • Neurological issues
  • Lameness
  • Swollen limbs

This phase is so problematic because if the bone marrow (where cells are produced) fails, your pooch will be unable to produce the blood cells he needs to sustain life (white blood cells, platelets and red blood cells).

How is ehrlichiosis diagnosed?

The early stages of this disease can be deceiving as dogs may test negative, making the infection difficult to diagnose.

Since the immune system typically takes 2 to 3 weeks to respond to the organism’s presence and to develop antibodies, testing at a later date may be required to detect antibodies and diagnose the infection properly.

Your vet may use a few different tests to learn which species of Ehrlichia are infecting your dog. The tests will then be sent to our in-house lab for analysis. Because Sharon Lakes Animal Hospital has an onsite lab and diagnostic testing, we receive results quickly and efficiently.

By detecting antibodies and recognizing clinical signs of the disease, your vet will be well on the way to a diagnosis. More rarely, blood smears or cell samples from the lungs, spleen and/or lymph nodes will reveal the disease. Baseline blood tests, including a blood cell count and chemistry should also be done.

If anemia (high levels of globulin protein, low platelet count or low red blood cell counts) are detected in the blood, there is a good indication that ehrlichiosis is the issue.

How is ehrlichiosis treated?

If anemia or severe bleeding problems are affecting your dog, he may need a blood transfusion in addition to being treated for the disease.

Antibiotics such as doxycycline are easily accessible and are usually well-tolerated. They may be used for about 4 weeks. Depending on your dog’s blood parameters and clinical state, he may need different medications such as steroids.

What is the prognosis for treating ehrlichiosis?

Generally, short-term prognosis after effective treatment is very good. If the disease was caught in its acute or mild chronic phase, your dog should typically improve within 24 to 48 hours.

How can I prevent my dog from getting ehrlichiosis?

Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to tick-borne and some other diseases, so try to ensure there are no ticks in your dog’s environment by using topical tick preventives such as Advantix or Frontline Plus.

There are also oral chewable options, including Nexgard. Ask your veterinarian to recommend the right tick preventives for your dog.

Since this disease is only transmitted via tick bites, it’s not transmitted directly between dogs and humans (who can contract canine ehrlichiosis through tick bites). But, infected dogs can act as warnings to indicate to their owners that infected ticks reside locally.

To avoid infection, ticks should be removed promptly. If a tick is discovered, consider bringing your dog to our veterinary clinic where a vet can safely remove a tick.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

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