Ehrlichiosis in Dogs

Ehrlichiosis is a disease carried by ticks that is found in dogs across the southern United States. Early diagnosis and treatment of this condition are critical in preventing it from reaching its more severe stages. Here, our Ventura vets explain ehrlichiosis' stages, symptoms and treatments in dogs.

What is ehrlichiosis in dogs?

Ehrlichiosis is a disease that is common throughout the United States and Canada. It develops in dogs after they have been bitten by a brown dog tick that is carrying the bacteria Ehrlichia canis. This organism is endemic to the southern United States and can be challenging to treat since antibiotics aren't able to effectively reach it. 

What are ehrlichiosis symptoms in dogs?

There are three major stages of Ehrlichiosis in dogs—early (acute), sub-clinical (no appearance of the disease), and clinical or chronic (long-standing infection)—and each one has different symptoms. 

Acute Phase

Ehrlichiosis's acute stage can last anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks. At this time, the infection is either eliminated or your pup will progress to the sub-clinical phase. Its symptoms can include:

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

Sub-Clinical Phase

The sub-clinical phase is often considered to be the worst phase of ehrlichiosis in dogs since there may be no signs of the disease readily apparent. This means that it is able to progress undetected and uninterrupted. 

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 dog’s infection may move to the next stage - clinical ehrlichiosis.

Clinical Phase

Clinical ehrlichiosis occurs when the organism isn’t eliminated by the immune system in one of the previous stages. This stage can lead to serious symptoms, including:

  • Bleeding episodes
  • Lameness
  • Swollen limbs
  • Anemia
  • Neurological problems
  • Eye problems (such as blindness or hemorrhage into eyes)

This phase can become extremely serious if your dog's bone marrow (where their white blood cells are produced) fails. This means that your dog will be unable to create any blood cells in order to sustain their life.  

How is ehrlichiosis diagnosed?

Dogs in the early stages of this disease may test negative for the condition, making the infection difficult to diagnose early on.

Since a dog's immune system takes anywhere between 2 and 3 weeks to respond to the presence of an organism and develop antibodies, testing may need to take place longer than normal after infection in order to properly diagnose the condition.

Your veterinarian may use a few different tests to find out which species of Ehrlichia are infecting your dog, then send the tests to our lab for analysis. Because we have an onsite lab and diagnostic testing at Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group (VMSG), we’re able to get results quickly and efficiently.

Detecting antibodies as well as keeping an eye out for other clinical signs are your vet's primary criteria for diagnosis of this diseases. Rarely, the organism will be detected in blood smears or cell samples from lungs, spleen or lymph nodes. Most often some baseline blood tests like a complete blood count will also be run on a dog who may be suffering from ehrlichiosis. 

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

How is ehrlichiosis treated?

If your pooch is experiencing severe bleeding problems or anemia due to ehrlichiosis, they may need a blood transfusion along with being treated for the disease.

Antibiotics like the easily accessible and usually well-tolerated doxycycline may be used on a dog for about a month. Depending on the state of your dog's symptoms and blood parameters, a vet may also recommend different medications. 

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?

Prevention is always the best treatment when it comes to diseases carried by ticks. Part of this is you making sure that there are no ticks on your dog's body or in their environment. The other is using tick prevention products. 

Ask your vet for more information about what prevention products are right for you and your dog. 

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. 

Do you suspect that your dog may be suffering from ehrlichiosis? Contact the vets at Veterinary Medical and Surgical Group (VMSG) in Ventura today. Our vets are able to diagnose and treat a wide range of tick-borne diseases in dogs. 

Ehrlichiosis in Dogs | Ventura Animal Hospital

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