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Ehrlichiosis in Dogs - Symptoms, Stages & Treatments

Ehrlichiosis is a serious disease in our canine companions that can develop if your dog is bitten by an infected tick. Though most common in the Southeastern and Southwestern regions of the United States this tick-borne disease is seen in dogs across North America. Learn more about this serious threat to your dog's health below.

What is Ehrlichiosis in dogs?

Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne disease that develops in dogs that have been bitten by brown ticks infected with rickettsial organisms. These ticks can be found throughout the United States and Canada.

The rickettsiae are spread by the ticks when feeding on your pet and are the cause of the disease. There are different rickettsial organisms however Ehrlichia canis (E. canis) is the most common cause of ehrlichiosis in the US and is considered endemic to the southeastern and southwestern states. Ehrlichiosis can be challenging to treat since most antibiotics are unable to reach the organisms inside of the cell where they live.

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).

Acute Phase Ehrlichiosis

Acute 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 Ehrlichiosis

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.

The disease is often detected when the vet notices prolonged bleeding from the injection site after taking a routine blood sample. If the organisms are not eliminated in this stage, your pooch’s infection may move to the next stage - clinical ehrlichiosis.

Clinical Phase Ehrlichiosis

If the organism isn’t eliminated by the immune system during either of the previous stages the disease will progress to the clinical phase. This stage can lead to several serious symptoms, including:

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

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

How Vets Diagnose Ehrlichiosis

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. At Veterinary Medical And Surgical Group–OC (VMSG-OC) our onsite lab and diagnostic testing in Orange County provides our vets with the tools they need to get results quickly and efficiently so that treatment can begin as soon as possible.

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 for Ehrlichiosis

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.

Dogs in need of advanced care may benefit from visiting a Veterinary Internal Medicine Specialist for detailed testing and treatment.

Prognosis for Dogs with 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.

Preventing Your Dog From Developing Ehrlichiosis

When it comes to tick-borne diseases prevention is always the best medicine - 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 canine companion.

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.

Does your dog have symptoms of Ehrlichiosis? Contact Veterinary Medical And Surgical Group–OC (VMSG-OC) to book an appointment for your dog with our Board-Certified Internal Medicine Specialist.

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