Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne disease that can occur in dogs that have been bitten by ticks. It’s imperative that it’s detected early and treated. Our Stroudsburg vets explain ehrlichiosis symptoms in dogs, and how the disease is detected and treated.

What is ehrlichiosis?

Ehrlichiosis is a disease that affects dogs who have been bitten by a tick carrying the disease. Brown ticks can be found throughout the United States and Canada, but E. canis is only found in the Southeast and Southwest.

Ehrlichia are bacteria that infect and live in the white blood cells of their hosts. The bacteria are transmitted from host to host via tick bites and are difficult to eradicate because most antibiotics do not reach the bacteria's living quarters.

What are the symptoms of ehrlichiosis?

Signs of canine ehrlichiosis can be classified in three stages: early disease (acute phase), sub-clinical (no outward appearance of disease), and clinical or chronic (long-standing infection).

Acute Phase

This stage may last 2 to 4 weeks, during which the infection is eliminated or your dog will progress to the sub-clinical phase. Symptoms include:

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

Sub-Clinical Phase

In this phase, the organism is present but there may not be any outward signs of disease. It’s often considered the worst phase because the disease goes undetected.

Long-term bleeding from the puncture site may require a blood sample. If the organisms are not eradicated during this stage, your dog's infection may progress to clinical ehrlichiosis.

Clinical or Chronic Phase

Clinical or chronic ehrlichiosis in dogs happens when the organism isn’t eliminated by the immune system in one of the other stages. This stage can bring several potential symptoms, including:

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

This stage is critical because if your puppy's bone marrow (where blood cells are produced) fails, he will be unable to produce the blood cells he requires to live (platelets, white blood cells, and red blood cells).

How is ehrlichiosis diagnosed?

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

Because the immune system takes 2 to 3 weeks to respond to the presence of the organism and for antibodies to develop, it may be necessary to test for antibodies and diagnose the infection at a later time.

Your vet 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 Barton Heights Veterinary Hospital, we’re able to get results quickly and efficiently.

Though your veterinarian's primary diagnostic criteria are antibody detection combined with certain clinical signs. Blood smears or cell samples from the spleen, lungs, and lymph nodes are more rarely found with the organism. Blood tests, such as blood cell count and chemistry, should be completed as well.

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 pup has severe bleeding problems or anemia, he may need a blood transfusion along with being treated for the disease.

Antibiotics such as doxycycline, which is widely available and generally well tolerated, can be used for up to four weeks. Different medications, such as steroids, may be required depending on your dog's clinical state and blood parameters.

What is the prognosis for treating ehrlichiosis?

After effective treatment, the short-term prognosis is usually very good. If the disease was caught in its acute or mild chronic phase, you should see your dog 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 by using topical tick preventives such as Frontline Plus or Advantix.

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

This disease is not transmitted directly between dogs and humans because it is only transmitted through tick bites (who can contract canine ehrlichiosis through tick bites). Infected dogs, on the other hand, can serve as warnings to their owners that infected ticks are present.

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.

If your dog is showing signs of ehrlichiosis, contact our office today to book an appointment for testing. Our vets are experienced in diagnosing and treating a number of illnesses and conditions.