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Ehrlichiosis in Dogs — Is Your Dog at Risk for This Tick-Borne Disease?

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A dog running and playing outside in the summer sun.

While Lyme disease remains the most commonly talked-about tick-related illness for dogs and people, all tick-borne diseases are on the rise in the United States. That means a number of diseases carried by ticks can make your dog (and you) very sick. Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne disease that impacts white blood cells, and is spread through bites from brown dog ticks, American dog ticks and lone star ticks. This disease may impact dogs, people, wild animals and livestock. So, what exactly is ehrlichiosis? How is it spread? Can you prevent it? Let’s learn more about ehrlichiosis in dogs here.

First, where is ehrlichiosis?

A sick dog wrapped in a towel or blanket.

Does your dog seem unwell? Could it be ehrlichiosis? Photography ©Monica Click | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Dr. Rick Marrinson, an Orlando veterinarian and board member of the Companion Animal Parasite Council, explains that ehrlichiosis is currently most commonly diagnosed in dogs living in or visiting the Southern United States. The Companion Animal Parasite Council maintains an updated map of the country and what areas are most impacted by ehrlichiosis so you can check risk factors in your area and anywhere you and your dogs might travel. Currently, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas are the most active in terms of ehrlichiosis cases this year. Similarly, it’s anticipated that Southern Virginia and Northern North Carolina will have more active cases in 2018 than in past years.

What are the symptoms of ehrlichiosis in dogs?

Symptoms of ehrlichiosis in dogs might be vague and hard to pinpoint. Dr. Marrinson cautions that the symptoms of ehrlichiosis in dogs — which include loss of appetite, fever and lethargy as well as lameness/joint pain, vomiting and diarrhea — can be easily confused with other medical conditions. So, even veterinarians might miss making an accurate diagnosis.

Some dogs don’t show any outward symptoms of ehrlichiosis at all. The Companion Animal Parasite Council also cautions that ehrlichiosis in dogs is potentially fatal if bone marrow is suppressed. Similarly, untreated chronic infection can result in arthritis and abnormalities in immune cells in infected dogs. 

How is ehrlichiosis in dogs diagnosed?

“Diagnosis is based on a combination of clinical signs, known exposure to ticks and laboratory testing,” Dr. Marrison explains. “There are ‘patient-side’ tests that can be run immediately in the veterinary clinic that can detect the patient’s antibodies that have formed against the bacteria.”

If your dog was potentially exposed to ticks and is acting unwell or unusual, or if your dog got bit by a tick, have a conversation with your vet about ehrlichiosis. Your veterinarian can do any diagnostic testing she thinks is appropriate based on geographic risks in your area.

How is ehrlichiosis in dogs treated?

“Therapy is typically a month-long treatment with doxycycline and antibiotics,” Dr. Marrinson notes. He also cautions that dogs who have undergone treatment don’t develop any kind of protective immunity. So, there’s an easy chance for re-infection if they’re exposed again.

Can you prevent ehrlichiosis in dogs?

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for ehrlichiosis. The best way to prevent ehrlichiosis in dogs is to protect your dog from tick bites. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Avoid. Limiting your dog’s exposure to ticks is the best way to prevent ehrlichiosis and other tick-borne diseases. Your dog is at the greatest risk for coming in contact with ticks in tall grass and wooded areas. Consider walking and hiking in well-maintained areas whenever possible.
  2. Check. Any time you take your dog out for a walk, especially if you’ve been hiking or in wooded areas, check for ticks. Look carefully on exposed skin around ears, between toes and on her belly. Surprisingly, I found a tick on my dog after visiting a street festival in Brooklyn. So, even urban dogs aren’t immune to ticks.
  3. Learn. Knowing about ticks and what diseases are most common in your area will give you information to advocate for your dog if she becomes sick and help your vet diagnose your dog accurately. The Companion Animal Parasite Council’s interactive map is a great place to get more information about ehrlichiosis and other diseases carried by ticks.
  4. Have the tools. Invest in a tick remover that’s designed to remove the tick’s entire body, including the head. This small tick remover fits on your keys. Or, follow these steps to safely pull a tick off your dog.
  5. Prevent. The most effective way to prevent ehrlichiosis in dogs is to have your canine on tick control year-round. Talk with your veterinarian about the best flea and tick treatment for your dog’s health, lifestyle, age, size and location. Tell your veterinarian if you have any summer vacations planned with your dog where you might travel to/through areas with different tick-borne diseases.

Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author whose novels have been honored by the Lambda Literary Foundation and the American Library Association. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor and assists with dog agility classes. She lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, a senior Chihuahua mix, a rescued Shepherd mix, a Newfoundland puppy, two bossy cats and a semi-feral kitten. Learn more at sassafraslowrey.com.

Thumbnail: Photography ©M_a_y_a | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

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