Zoonotic Disease – Canine Ehrlichiosis

Ticks and the diseases they carry can be troublesome. They’re just waiting to bite some unsuspecting pup who’s minding his or her own business enjoying the great outdoors! Have you heard of Ehrlichiosis? Similar to Lyme disease, canine Ehrlichiosis is a tick-borne infectious disease found in dogs who are bitten by an infected tick. Although dogs can’t transmit the disease to humans, we can get it from the bite of an infected tick, too. Yes, another tick that can cause debilitating diseases, and you and your dog may not even know you’ve been bitten.

To complicate matters more, Ehrlichiosis can be caused by multiple tick species here in the U.S. Both the brown dog tick and the American dog tick are known to transmit the disease to dogs, however the lone star tick is the primary culprit of Ehrlichiosis. In years past, the lone star tick was more prevalent in the southern regions of the U.S. and we didn’t hear a lot about it around our area. Multiple factors, including frequency of travel and relocation of pets with their owners, have helped this tick’s migration spread much farther north and east – and yes, even into Wisconsin.

It’s a very aggressive tick that can easily travel long distances to bite and feed on us and our pets. The distinguishable white star-shaped spot on the female’s back is the hallmark of the lone star tick. During all three stages of this tick’s life – larva, nymph, and adult – it can bite and feed on humans, so protecting yourself from a bite is as important as protecting your pets from them.

How do you know if your dog has contracted this disease? It’s important to know the signs of Ehrlichiosis occur in three stages: acute (early disease), sub-clinical (no outward signs of disease), and chronic (long-standing infection). Commons signs to be on the lookout for include:

  • Lack of energy and/or depression (also referred to as ‘lethargy’)
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fever
  • Runny eyes and nose/discharge
  • Spontaneous nosebleeds
  • Weight loss
  • Bruising on gums and belly
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Lameness/joint pain and/or swelling (collection of fluid in the tissue called ‘Edema’)
  • Swollen lymph nodes

When lone star ticks bite people, we may end up with a bad rash that tends to resemble Lyme disease. Even though the tick doesn’t actually transmit the bacteria that causes this disease, we can become infected with other diseases, such as tick paralysis and STARI (Southern Tick Associated Illness).

As for our dogs, their immune systems may take 2-3 weeks to respond to the organism. This means they can be infected, but still show a negative bloodwork result. Laboratory tests performed a few weeks later, such as our heartworm/tick screen test, are able to confirm the diagnosis due to the presence of the Ehrlichia Canis bacteria antibodies.

How do you treat Ehrlichiosis? Certain antibiotics, such as doxycycline or tetracycline, are really effective in fighting this disease, but it does require weeks of treatment. Supportive care is also given to dogs with clinical signs of the disease. It may include subcutaneous or intravenous fluids, or even a blood transfusion for dogs who are severely anemic.

Even though the prognosis for recovery is good, it’s best when the disease is caught and treated early, so dogs can fully recover and can get back to their normal, active selves.

We can’t stress tick prevention enough – stopping the bite in the first place is KEY to keeping your pup safe from these debilitating diseases.