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Ehrlichiosis in Dogs

Ehrlichiosis is a serious tick-borne disease that is most commonly reported in areas with a high number of brown ticks. Successful treatment of this disease greatly depends on early detection and treatment. Today our Orange vets talk about the stages, symptoms and treatments for ehrlichiosis in dogs.

What is ehrlichiosis in dogs?

Ehrlichiosis is a disease that develops in dogs that have been bitten by infected brown ticks which can be found throughout the United States and Canada. The organism which is spread by the ticks and causes the disease (Ehrlichia canis or E. canis) is considered endemic to the areas that have an abundance of brown ticks. Ehrlichia can be challenging to treat since most antibiotics are unable to reach the inside of the cell where they live.

What are signs of ehrlichiosis throughout the different phases?

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).

Acute Phase

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)
  • Fever
  • Neurological disturbances (meningitis or unsteady on feet)

Sub-Clinical Phase

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 the infection will then most likely move on to the next stage - clinical ehrlichiosis.

Clinical Phase

Clinical ehrlichiosis happens when the organism isn’t eliminated by the immune system in one of the previous stages. This stage becomes increasingly concerning as the signs and symptoms may include:

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

This phase becomes extremely serious if the bone marrow (where blood cells are produced) fails, meaning that your pup will be unable to create any blood cells he needs to sustain life (platelets, white blood cells and red blood cells).

How is ehrlichiosis in dogs diagnosed?

This disease can be difficult to diagnose as it is possible for dogs experiencing the early stages to test negative.

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. Because we have an onsite lab and diagnostic testing at Dockery, Mobley, & Associates Animal Hospital, we’re able to get results quickly and efficiently.

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.

How is ehrlichiosis in dogs typically treated?

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

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

What is the prognosis for ehrlichiosis in dogs?

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.

What are some ways I can prevent ehrlichiosis in my dog?

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

There are also oral chewable options such as Nexgard. Ask your vet for recommendations on the right tick prevention medications for your pooch.

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 exhibiting any of the signs of ehrlichiosis? Contact our Orange vets today to book a visit for your dog as soon as possible.

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