Identify Ehrlichiosis Symptoms at All 3 Stages of the Disease Learn What Signs to Watch Out For

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Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne disease with mild symptoms that can go undetected for many years, making it harder to cure. Early detection is key, so learn more here.

Ehrlichiosis is one of several tick-borne illnesses that can strike you and your furry friends. Arm yourself to fight it by learning as much as you can about ehrlichiosis symptoms.

โ€œEhrlichiosisโ€ refers to any of a group of diseases caused by bacteria in the Erhlichia group. Ehrlichiosis is usually transmitted by ticks, and can be quite serious, both for humans and dogs, though itโ€™s rare among cats. Ehrlichiosis gets harder to treat the farther it progresses, so early detection is critical.


Ehrlichiosis has three different stages that have different symptoms and different prognoses. Since dogs get the disease much more often than cats, symptoms in dogs are much better understood. The first symptoms start one to three weeks after a dog is first infected.

Stage 1: Acute Ehrlichiosis Symptoms in Dogs


  • Fever
  • Sores in the mucous membranes
  • Inflammation of the blood vessels
  • Bleeding disorders (nose bleeds, for example)

Diagnosis: A simple blood test can confirm the presence of the bacteria.

Duration: The acute phase lasts two to four weeks.

Treatment: This phase can usually be cured with antibiotics.

Prognosis: Early detection, and treatment with antibiotics, can often result in complete eradication of the bacteria.

If neither antibiotics nor the dogโ€™s own immune system fight off the bacteria, the disease seems to disappear, but actually moves into the second phase. Mild cases do sometimes go away on their own, without treatment.

Stage 2: Subclinical Ehrlichiosis Symptoms in Dogs

Symptoms: The subclinical stage of the disease has no symptoms at all.

Diagnosis: There are a number of blood tests and other tests vets can do to find out if the Ehrlichia bacteria are still in the dog, but none of them are reliable by themselves. Most can give false negative results, while some can also give false positives.

Duration: The subclinical phase can last up to five years before the symptoms of chronic infection develop.

Treatment: Subclinical ehrlichiosis can be cured with antibiotics as well, but might require extended treatment, and it is hard to be sure the treatment has been successful.

Stage 3: Chronic Ehrlichiosis Symptoms in Dogs

  • Pale gums (from anemia)
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Breathing problems
  • Coughing
  • Inflammation of the blood vessels
  • Increased urination and increased drinking (from kidney problems)
  • Eye problems
  • Lameness
  • Neurological problems including confusion, disorientation, and behavior changes

Prognosis: Chronic ehrlichiosis can be treated, but a cure at this stage is a bit of a long-shot. Chronic ehrlichiosis can be managed, but can ultimately lead to the death of your pet, usually from a related side effect.

Ehrlichiosis in Cats

Cats seem to have similar symptoms to dogs, as well as lethargy, weight loss, and an enlarged spleen, and sometimes hypersensitivity to light, noise, or other stimuli. Treatment is also similar to canine ehrlichiosis.

Can I Get Ehrlichiosis from my Cat or Dog?

You can catch ehrlichiosis, but not from your dog or cat. Ehrlichia travels by tick, and humans do not get the same kinds of Ehrlichia as dogs or cats. You could catch the human version of ehrlichiosis from a tick your animal brings inside, though. Learn how to avoid tick bites, how to thoroughly check yourself for ticks, and how to safely remove an embedded tick.

What Do I Do If My Dog or Cat Gets Ehrlichiosis?

The early symptoms of ehrlichiosis are very hard to catch, yet early diagnosis is critical. So do regular tick checks. If you find an engorged tick on any of your animals (or on yourself), freeze the tick in a sealed bag with the date on it. If the bite victim gets sick within the next three weeks, assume ehrlichiosis (or another tick-borne illness) is a possibility and go to the vet. Bring the tick, in case the vet wants to test it as well.

Antibiotics should cure the disease at this stage, but your pet may also need to be treated for secondary problems, like dehydration. In some cases, treatment won't ever clear the infection completely and it will become chronic.

The early symptoms are easy to miss. If your pet does develop chronic, or end-stage ehrlichiosis, your petโ€™s best chance will be antibiotics plus other supportive treatments such as blood transfusions and steroids.

How to Prevent Ehrlichiosis in Dogs and Cats

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 patientโ€™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


  • Avoid & Check for Ticks

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

Anti-tick medications, like monthly spot-on treatments, can keep ticks from biting. Unfortunately, ticks and flea populations evolve quickly: theyโ€™re becoming resistant to many of the pest repellant ointments we throw at them. So keep doing manual tick checks, too, just in case.

  • Manual Tick Checks

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 doesnโ€™t work.

  • Safely Remove Ticks

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 hostโ€™s body, a major infection risk. Instead, use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the animalโ€™s skin as possible and pull gently and steadily. You donโ€™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 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 itโ€™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 itโ€™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

Types of Ticks in the U.S.
How to Stop Ticks
How Do I Find Ticks on My Pet?

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.

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