Ehrlichiosis: What to look for

What is Ehrlichiosis And How to Deal with It

what is Ehrlichiosis

Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne bacterial infection that affects canines like dogs, wolves and other species around the world. Also known as Canine Typhus, Tracker Dog Disease, and Tropical Canine Pancytopenia, Ehrlichiosis leads to a wide range of flu-like symptoms, which makes the disease difficult to diagnose.

This type of bacterial infection in dogs was first identified when military dogs returning from Vietnam during the 1970's were found to be infected. While Ehrlichiosis can infect any dog breed, it seems to be particularly severe in Doberman pinchers and German shepherds.

Causes of Ehrlichiosis

Ehrlichiosis is transmitted to dogs through the bite of infected ticks. It is mainly caused by the brown dog tick, Rhipicephalus sanguineus, which is the main carrier of the Ehrlichia organism.  There are many species of Ehrlichia, but only a few species are known to affecting dogs. Some of these include Ehrlichia chaffeensis, Ehrlichia ewingii, and Ehrlichia canis.

Anaplasmosis is another tick-borne infection that is closely related to Ehrlichiosis. It is caused by bacteria called Anaplasma platys which affects platelets. But occasionally, other strains of the organism can also be responsible, such as Anaplasma phagocytophila (formerly Ehrlichia equi) and Ehrlichia ewingii.

The Three Stages of Ehrlichiosis

When certain ticks infected with Ehrlichia get attached to the skin of dogs, they begin affecting them. The Ehrlichia sometimes stay dormant for four to five months before they infect the ticks. Hence, a tick may not infect a dog immediately after it attaches itself to the skin.

In general, there are three stages of Ehrlichiosis:

Stage 1

Acute (early disease): After one to three weeks of an infected tick bite, the disease enters into the acute stage, which goes on for two or four weeks. In this stage, the Ehrlichia start to enter the white blood cells and spread throughout the body rapidly. The white blood cells are found in the liver, spleen, bone marrow, and lymph nodes, as well as the blood of the dogs. Consequently, Ehrlichia begin to destroy the platelets, which are cell fragments that help in the clotting of blood. Infected dogs may have swollen lymph nodes, fever, respiratory problems, bleeding disorders, weight loss, and, occasionally, neurological disturbances. If the dog is unable to fend off the infection at this stage, the second stage kicks in.

Stage 2

Sub-clinical (no outward signs of disease):

Sometimes dogs pass the acute stage without its owner being aware of the disease. Such dogs enter the second stage, or the subclinical stage, where they develop some laboratory changes in the body without visibly showing any sign of illness. This is usually referred to as the worst stage of all because it is asymptotic and often goes undetected. Dogs, at this stage, may either fight the organisms themselves or move to the next stage.

Stage 3

Chronic (long-standing infection):

The third stage is the chronic stage, where the disease is more difficult to cure. At this stage, the immune system fails to fight the organisms, leading to a host of problems such as anemia, bleeding episodes, eye problems, lameness, swollen limbs and neurological problems. It may also lead to the failure of bone marrow, which means the dog may become unable to produce any of the blood cells vital to sustain life.

Symptoms of Ehrlichiosis

Following are a few visible signs and symptoms that can help detect the presence of Ehrlichiosis:

1) Fever
2) Bleeding episodes
3) Lameness
4) Eye problems
5) Swollen limbs
6) Weight loss
7) Lethargy
8) Loss of appetite
9) Frequent breathlessness
10) Pain and stiffness of the joints
11) Appearance of bruises on the dog’s skin

Treatment of Ehrlichiosis

Dogs that experience severe anemia or bleeding problems as a result of this infection may require a blood transfusion. However, this doesn’t cure the underlying disease.

To treat ehrlichiosis, antibiotics such as doxycycline and tetracycline are used. Depending on the severity of the disease, the full course of the treatment can last for about four to six weeks. After the first week, the dog may show some signs of improvement. More often than not, if treatment is initiated during the first stage of the disease, the dog’s recovery process is quicker. However, if the disease reaches the chronic stage, the prognosis becomes comparatively poorer. Some veterinarians may prescribe imidocarb dipropionate and prednisolone during the chronic stage.

Prevention of Ehrlichiosis

Because the immunity to Ehrlichia bacteria is not long-lasting, the risk of reinfection is always there. Hence, prevention is important. And the best way to prevent this bacterial infection is to prevent exposure to ticks. You should check your dog daily for ticks and remove them as soon as you see them. This is especially required in peak tick season or if your dog spends time in the woods or tall grass. You can also consider using Tick Collars or Monthly Parasite Preventives. However, before using any of these products, make sure to take your veterinarian's advice.