What is ehrlichiosis in dogs?

Ehrlichiosis in dogs can occur when ticks infected with the disease pass it on by biting your dog. It’s critical to detect it early and have it treated. Our Greensboro vets discuss ehrlichiosis symptoms in dogs, and how we detect and treat the condition. 

What is ehrlichiosis in dogs?

Ehrlichiosis is a disease that can develop when dogs are bitten by an infected tick. Brown ticks are commonly found throughout the United States and Canada, and E. canis is considered endemic to the southeastern and southwestern states.

Ehrlichia bacteria infect and live within a host’s white blood cells. These bacteria spread from host to host through tick bites and are difficult to eliminate, as most antibiotics do not reach the interior of the cell, where they reside.

What are signs of ehrlichiosis?

Signs of canine ehrlichiosis can be classified in three stages:

  • Early disease (acute phase)
  • Sub-clinical (no outward appearance of disease)
  • Clinical or chronic (long-standing infection)

Acute Phase

During this stage (which lasts between 2 and 4 weeks), your dog’s body eliminates the infection or it will progress to the sub-clinical phase. Symptoms include:

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

Sub-clinical Phase

In this phase, the organism is in the body but your dog may not display any outward symptoms of the condition. It’s often considered the “worst” phase as the disease often progresses undetected.

A blood sample may be needed to reveal prolonged bleeding from the puncture site. If the organisms are not eliminated at this point, your pup’s infection may advance to the next stage - clinical ehrlichiosis.

Clinical Phase

Clinical ehrlichiosis happens when the immune system doesn’t eliminate the organism during one of the other stages. Your dog may potentially display several symptoms, including:

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

As you might imagine, huge issues can develop during this stage because if the bone marrow (where blood cells are created) fails, your pooch will be unable to produce the blood cells he needs to sustain life (red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells).

How is ehrlichiosis diagnosed?

During the early stages of ehrlichiosis, dogs may test negative, making the infection challenging to diagnose early on.

Because it usually takes the immune system 2 to 3 weeks to respond to the organism’s presence and for the body to produce antibodies, testing at a later date may be necessary to detect antibodies and correctly diagnose the infection.

Your vet may use a number of different tests to learn which species of ehrlichia are infecting your dog before sending the tests to our lab for analysis. At Guilford-Jamestown Veterinary Hospital, we have an onsite lab and diagnostic testing, which means we receive results quickly and efficiently.

By detecting antibodies and noting clinical signs, your vet will be well on their way to diagnosing the condition if it is what’s causing your pet’s symptoms. More rarely, we’ll be able to detect the organism in cell samples or blood smears from the lymph nodes, lungs and spleen.

Baseline blood tests, including a blood cell count and chemistry should also be taken. If anemia (low red blood cell counts, a low platelet count or high levels of globulin protein) is found in the blood, this is a sign that ehrlichiosis is the issue.

How is ehrlichiosis treated?

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

Antibiotics, including the typically well-tolerated and easily accessible doxycycline, may be used for about 4 weeks. Depending on your dog’s blood parameters and clinical state, different medications such as steroids may be needed.

What is the prognosis for treating ehrlichiosis?

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

How can I prevent ehrlichiosis?

Prevention is the best medicine - so try to ensure there are no ticks in your dog’s environment. Our parasite prevention products can help protect your pet from common parasites. Topical tick preventives such as Advantix or Frontline Plus can help, along with chewable options such as Nexgard. Ask your veterinarian to recommend the right tick prevention medications for your dog.

Since this disease is transmitted exclusively via tick bites, dogs cannot transmit it directly to humans (who can contract canine ehrlichiosis through tick bites). But infected dogs may act as warnings to indicate to their owners that infected ticks are lurking in the area.

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.

Is your dog showing signs of ehrlichiosis? Contact our Greensboro vets right away to schedule an appointment for testing. Our vets are experienced in diagnosing a number of conditions and illnesses.

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