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Symptoms of Ehrlichiosis in Dogs

Source: PetWave, Updated on July 16, 2015

How Ehrlichiosis Affects Dogs

Many dogs show few if any symptoms of illness when they first become infected with bacteria that cause ehrlichiosis. When dogs do become sick, they usually are weak, lethargic and depressed. This happens because their red and white blood cells are being depressed, damaged and destroyed.

Symptoms of Ehrlichiosis

Signs of ehrlichiosis most commonly are seen during the initial acute phase and in the later chronic phase. Symptoms can develop anytime during the year, although most tick bites occur during warmer months. In the United States, late March through the end of September is considered to be the height of tick season. Owners of dogs with ehrlichiosis may notice one or more of the following symptoms during any phase of the disease. Unfortunately, most of these are nonspecific and can be difficult to differentiate from the signs of other ailments.

  • Attached ticks or history of tick bites
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Fever
  • Sneezing
  • Respiratory distress (difficulty breathing; dyspnea; may even be so severe as to produce cyanosis, which is extremely low levels of circulating oxygen that causes mucous membranes and other tissues to turn blue)
  • Lack of appetite (inappetence; anorexia)
  • Weight loss
  • Ocular discharge (coming from the eyes)
  • Nasal discharge (coming from the nostrils)
  • Lameness, limping (joint pain)
  • Swelling, particularly in the lower parts of the legs (peripheral edema)
  • Red spotting of the gums and other mucous membranes (petechiation; caused by abnormally low platelet levels, which is known as thrombocytopenia)
  • Anemia (low numbers of circulating red blood cells)

During the chronic phase, the dog may also have one or more of these symptoms:

  • Unexplained spontaneous bleeding, especially from the nostrils (nose bleeds; epistaxis)
  • Abdominal pain (belly-aches)
  • General ill health and failure to thrive (cachexia; a profound and marked state of system-wide illness and malnutrition)
  • Disorientation (neurological abnormalities)
  • Loss of coordination/ataxia (neurological abnormalities)
  • Head tilt
  • Balance disturbances (vestibular signs)
  • Enlarged lymph nodes (lymphadenomegaly)
  • Enlarged spleen (splenomegaly)
  • Enlarged liver (hepatomegaly)
  • Swelling in and under the skin that dents, or “pits,” when pressed on with a finger (subcutaneous pitting edema)
  • Retinal hemorrhages (bleeding inside of the eyeballs)
  • Retinal detachment
  • Other eye and vision abnormalities; uveitis
  • Blindness
  • Seizures (uncommon)
  • Arthritis (uncommon)

These signs can range from mild to severe. If enough blood cells are destroyed, and especially if the bone marrow is suppressed, ehrlichiosis can quickly become life-threatening. This condition is called pancytopenia.

Dogs at Increased Risk

German Shepherd Dogs and Doberman Pinschers seem prone to developing a particularly severe form of ehrlichiosis. Because the bacteria that cause this disease must be carried by ticks, dogs living in or near wooded, brushy areas have an increased chance of becoming infected. Dogs that develop other tick-borne diseases have a greater risk of becoming severely sick if they develop ehrlichiosis at the same time.

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