Ehrlichiosis is a serious tick-borne disease seen in dogs across the Southeastern and Southwestern US. In today's post, our Concord vets explain the stages, symptoms, and treatments for ehrlichiosis in dogs.
What is Ehrlichiosis?
Ehrlichiosis is a disease found throughout the United States and Canada that develops in dogs after they have been bitten by an infected brown tick. The bacteria which is spread by the ticks and causes the disease (Ehrlichia canis or E. canis) is considered endemic to the southeastern and southwestern states. Ehrlichia bacteria can be challenging to treat since most antibiotics are unable to reach the inside of the cell where they live.
Symptoms of Ehrlichiosis in Dogs
There are 3 main stages of ehrlichiosis in dogs and each stage has different symptoms, 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 unsteadiness on feet)
The sub-clinical phase is often considered the worst phase of ehrlichiosis in dogs because there may be no outward sign of the disease, meaning that it can 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 dog’s infection may move to the next stage - clinical ehrlichiosis.
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:
- Swollen limbs
- Neurological problems
- Bleeding episodes
- Eye problems (such as blindness or hemorrhage in the eyes)
This phase becomes extremely serious if the dog's bone marrow (where blood cells are produced) fails, meaning that your dog will be unable to create any blood cells.
Dogs in the early stages of this disease may test negative for the condition, making the infection difficult to diagnose early on.
Because the immune system usually takes 2 to 3 weeks to respond to the presence of the organism, and for antibodies to develop, it may take testing at a later date to detect antibodies and properly diagnose the infection.
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.
The detection of antibodies, combined with certain clinical signs are your vet’s primary diagnostic criteria. More rarely, the organism will be detected in blood smears or cell samples from the spleen, lungs, and lymph nodes. Baseline blood tests, including a blood cell count and chemistry, should also be completed.
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.
Treatment of Ehrlichiosis
If your dog is experiencing severe bleeding problems or anemia due to ehrlichiosis, they may need a blood transfusion along with being treated for the disease.
Antibiotics such as doxycycline may be used for about 4 weeks. Depending on your dog’s clinical state and blood parameters, different medications such as steroids may be prescribed.
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.
Prevention is always better than treatment when it comes to tick-borne diseases. We recommend using the tick prevention products that your vet recommends. The right tick prevention for your dog will depend upon your dog's risk of exposure to disease-causing ticks and other factors. Speak to your vet to find out more.
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.