Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne illness caused by bacteria in the Ehrlichia group. A related group, Anaplasma causes anaplasmosis, a virtually identical disease. In either case, the bacteria attack the blood cells and can be fatal. Humans, horses, cattle, and dogs (especially German Shepherds and Dobermans) are vulnerable. Very rarely, cats can also get sick. Early treatment is critical, but ehrlichiosis is very difficult to diagnose. The best bet is to keep your pet from getting sick in the first place.
You cannot catch ehrlichiosis from your dog or cat, but you can catch it from the same tick. In other words, your dog may pick up an infected tick and bring it to your home, which is why you need to take precautions.
Symptoms of Ehrlichiosis in Dogs and Cats
Ehrlichiosis has three different stages in dogs. The disease is so rare in cats that not much is known about the feline version, but it appears similar to canine ehrlichiosis.
- The first stage, acute ehrlichiosis, begins one to three weeks after infection, and lasts up to a month. This phase is usually not dangerous, and mild cases sometimes go away without treatment.
- If neither the patient’s immune system nor drugs get rid of the Ehrlichia, it hides and becomes subclinical ehrlichiosis. This stage has no symptoms at all and can last years, but if not cured it can progress to chronic ehrlichiosis.
- The third stage, chronic ehrlichiosis, is very difficult to treat and it can be life threatening.
Read more about the symptoms of Ehrlichiosis
PREVENTING EHRLICHIOSIS IN DOGS AND CATS (AND HUMANS!)
Preventing ehrlichiosis begins with preventing tick bites. Avoiding tick habitats might not be practical, since romping through woods and fields are joys of life for animals and humans alike. Fortunately, ticks need to feed for at least 24 hours before they can transmit disease, so a thorough tick check once or twice a day should catch most ticks in time.
Anti-tick medications, like monthly spot-on treatments, can keep ticks from biting. Unfortunately, ticks and flea populations evolve quickly: they’re becoming resistant to many of the pest repellant ointments we throw at them. So keep doing manual tick checks, too, just in case.
Dogs and especially cats can both remove most ticks by grooming, but they can miss some. Check especially around the head and face and under the collar. Non-engorged ticks can be very small and hard to see. To search for them, use your forefinger to part the hair one small section at a time. Remember, just washing doesn’t work.
If you find a tick attached, do not use a match, petroleum jelly, or your fingers to make the tick let go. Those methods just make ticks vomit into their host’s body, a major infection risk. Instead, use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the animal’s skin as possible and pull gently and steadily. You don’t want to risk breaking the tick and spilling its fluids, as these could also infect you.
If the tick is already partially engorged, freeze it in a sealed plastic bag with the date on it, in case the bite victim gets sick and the vet wants to have the tick tested.
EHRLICHIOSIS TREATMENT IN DOGS AND CATS
Ehrlichiosis symptoms are hard to spot, and early symptoms can be mild. The best way to spot the disease is to notice the tick and then watch for signs of illness over the next few weeks. If your pet gets sick, the vet can do a number of different blood tests. Some vets might routinely test for ehrlichiosis, since it’s possible to miss the initial symptoms.
Vets treat ehrlichiosis with antibiotics, plus supportive therapies such as intravenous fluids, if necessary. If the disease is found during the acute stage, treatment usually works. The subacute is also treatable with antibiotics, though it’s hard to tell whether the treatment works since there are no symptoms.
The final, chronic phase is very difficult to treat. The vet may have to prescribe steroids and even multiple blood transfusions. If your medical team can keep your dog or cat alive long enough for the antibiotics to work, your pet has a fighting chance.
Oftentimes, treatment will alleviate symptoms, but the infection can still return as a chronic condition.
More on Ticks
Flea Allergy Dermatitis: Protect Your Dog's Skin
Flea and Tick Questions Answered
Understanding Fleas and Ticks
This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.