Ehrlichiosis is a serious tick-borne disease that can affect dogs and humans. Commonly seen across the Southeast and Southwest of the United States, it is essential to catch this severe disease early before it makes your pet seriously ill. Today, our Corpus Christi vets explain the symptoms, treatment, and prevention of Ehrlichiosis in dogs.
What is ehrlichiosis?
Ehrlichiosis is a disease that develops in dogs that have been bitten by infected brown ticks. While brown ticks can be seen across the United States and Canada, ehrlichiosis is most commonly seen in the southeastern and southwestern states.
The organism responsible for this disease is a rickettsial organism. Ehrlichia canis is the most common rickettsial species involved in ehrlichiosis in dogs, but occasionally other strains of the organism will be found.
What are the signs of ehrlichiosis?
Ehrlichiosis symptoms in dogs can be classified into three stages: early disease (acute phase), sub-clinical (no outward appearance of disease), and clinical or chronic (long-standing infection).
The acute stage of ehrlichiosis can last 2 to 4 weeks, during which the infection is either eliminated or your dog will progress to the sub-clinical phase. Symptoms of the acute stage include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Weight loss
- Respiratory distress
- Bleeding disorders (spontaneous hemorrhage or bleeding)
- Neurological disturbances (meningitis or unsteady on feet)
In the sub-clinical phase, the Ehrlichia organism is present but there may not be any outward signs of disease. This is often considered the worst phase of the disease because it is able to progress undetected.
In some cases, the disease is detected when the vet notices prolonged bleeding from the injection site after taking a blood sample. If the organisms are not eliminated in this stage, your pooch’s infection may move to the next stage - clinical ehrlichiosis.
Clinical ehrlichiosis happens when the organism isn’t eliminated by the immune system in one of the previous stages. This stage can lead to several serious symptoms, including:
- Swollen limbs
- Neurological problems
- Bleeding episodes
- Eye problems (such as blindness or hemorrhage into eyes)
During this stage, your dog may experience bone marrow failure in which your pup's bone marrow is unable to produce enough healthy blood cells to keep up with the body's needs.
How is ehrlichiosis diagnosed?
Diagnosing ehrlichiosis can be difficult as it shares many symptoms with other diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease.
It can also be difficult because dogs can test negative for the condition in its early stages despite being infected.
If you or your vet suspect your pup has been infected, they will run a number of diagnostic tests, including a complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistry panel, urinalysis, and a fecal exam. They will also complete specific lab work aimed at diagnosing ehrlichiosis. One such test is testing for antibodies against ehrlichiosis, which can be easier to spot than the ehrlichiosis organism itself.
The detection of antibodies, combined with certain clinical signs are your vet’s primary diagnostic criteria.
How is ehrlichiosis treated?
If a dog receives treatment early on in the disease, their condition will usually improve rapidly. The first course of treatment is typically a weeks-long course of the antibiotic doxycycline.
When the disease is more progressed, additional treatments such as IV fluids, pain medication, or blood transfusions may be required.
What is the prognosis for treating ehrlichiosis?
The short-term prognosis following effective treatment is typically very good. Once your pet begins treatment you should see an improvement in your dog's condition within 24 to 48 hours, if the disease was caught in its acute phase or mild chronic phase.
How can I prevent ehrlichiosis?
Because ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne disease, the best protection is protection against tick bites. Talk to your veterinarian about the best parasite preventives to use for your pup.
We also strongly recommend keeping your dog’s environment as free of ticks as possible and checking their fur thoroughly after going for outdoor walks, particularly if walking through grassy or brushy areas.
As this disease is exclusively tick-borne, it cannot be transmitted directly to humans from dogs (who can contract canine ehrlichiosis when bitten by ticks).
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.