Neuse River Golden Retiever Rescue
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Neuse River Golden Retiever Rescue

Canine Erlichiosis......the Tick Strikes Back

by User Not Found | Jul 28, 2013

I had a great question after my last post on Lyme Disease about another tick borne illness we see a lot around the rescue, Erlichia.  Although there are many types, I’ll focus on Erlichia canis or Erlichiosis which is usually transmitted by the brown dog tick and can cause the usual suspects of symptoms.  Things like fever, anorexia, stiffness and even just generalized swelling especially around their joints are on the official list but perhaps your pup doesn’t want to walk anymore or has trouble getting on and off the er, ahem, couch.  It’s tough to catch these tick illness signs because they may come and go.  You may notice them, but then think that you are just being paranoid because your pup seems to be feeling better.  It turns out, you aren’t paranoid, whew!  Tick disease actually happens in phases, some of which can show symptoms and some that don’t.  Erlichia canis has three phases, the first beginning about one to three weeks after your dog is bitten, known as the acute phase.  Dog’s may not want to eat and he/she may have a fever, loss of stamina and reluctance to walk.  We tend to see this phase more in the warmer months of the year.  The next phase is known as “subclinical”.  The Erlichia bug can tuck itself in to the tissue of the spleen of your dog and well, hibernate.  Waking up from this sleep to cause infection again can take months or even years.  And finally, we have the chronic phase where the Erlichia has moved in and set up a nice residence complete with curtains.  At this point, your dog will become sick again and can have abnormal bleeding due to low platelet counts (more on that in a minute!)  Neurologic and kidney issues can also occur. 

When we screen our dogs for heartworm disease every year, via the “snap test”, we are also checking for tick borne illnesses like Erlichia and Lyme.  Unlike Lyme Disease, the way the test works for Erlichia is by checking for antibodies to the Erlichia bug.  Now for science lesson number one!  Your body makes antibodies any time you are exposed to something “foreign” like bacteria or a virus.  These antibodies help knock out whatever is ailing you, but then they continue to be stored in our “memory” cells in case we are ever exposed to that same bacteria or virus again!  This is the theory behind vaccines.  Let’s take Chicken Pox as an example.  We expose you to a little part of the virus in a vaccine to mount an antibody response and when you are actually exposed to the virus, even though it may get in your body, your body is already prepared to fight back.  It’s like knowing the enemy is coming and having all your water guns pre-filled for a water fight!  Those who have had chicken pox before have naturally fought off the virus and made antibody on their own, so they don’t need the vaccine.  Congratulations, you have had your first immunology lesson.  Go have a drink to celebrate because this is complicated stuff!

Now for science lesson number two!  Still have that drink handy?  Platelets are produced by your bone marrow.  They are funky shaped and have properties that help them stick to things, like each other.  The Platelet’s are required to stop you from bleeding, say when you cut your finger.  Chemicals released by the tissue in your finger  attract platelets to the area and usually within a few seconds to minutes, they are piling up and plugging up the cut to prevent you from bleeding, also known as a forming a clot.  When your body uses platelets, it also tells itself to make more so you have a stockpile floating around in your blood system ready for immediate use!  I know!  Our bodies are brilliant and we don’t even have to think about it.  So why are you telling us about platelets?  I thought we were talking about Erlichia!  A low platelet count is one of the only ways to know that a dog has Erlichia if they are in the subclinical phase. 

When your dog’s heartworm screen comes back and says it’s positive for Erlichia, it just means your dog has been EXPOSED to it, not that he/she HAS it.  That’s because the test picks up antibodies to Erlichia.  In theory, this means that you don’t have to treat your dog.  I can’t tell you what to do, but I can give you the information to have a discussion with your vet and make the best choice for your pup. 

If your dog’s snap test is positive for Erlichia, here are your options.

  1. Do nothing.  You can watch your pup for signs of infection such as fever, lack of appetite, stiffness, etc and then treat your dog if they get sick from the bug. 
  2.  A low platelet count indicates there is a likely-hood of true infection, Check your dog’s CBC (Complete Blood Count) and if the platelet count is low, this is an indication for treatment.
  3. Pursue further testing.  A test known as PCR can specificially detect the Erlichia organism, however it does not distinguish between live and dead organisms and it takes time to clear dead organisms from the body.  Another test is called an antibody titer, which can actually measure how much antibody is present in the blood.  A “negative” titer result would indicate that your dog is not infected with Erlichia canis.  Ideally, you would use both of these tests together, instead of one or the other.
  4. Treat your dog with Doxycycline for at least 30 days.  There are some disadvantages to treating a dog with antibiotics who may not need it, but with the complications of testing for something like Erlichia, it appears to be a safe rather than sorry route.  And with a little price shopping, it can be the cheap alternative if you choose to treat. 
  5. Just for your information....antibody titers can actually stick around for 6-9 months after treatment of Erlichia, so even though the dog has been treated, they can still have a positive snap test for several months!  And although our bodies normally maintain "memory" so we don't get sick again from the same bug, that is not the case for most tick diseases.  Just because your dog has had Erlichia or Lyme or even Heartworm, they can still get it and get sick from it again.  Boo.

Unfortunately ticks are about as sneaky as heartworms, so the key is good prevention, then you don't have to worry about complicated sciencey stuff.  Use something to keep those little buggers off your dogs and always check them for ticks and remove them immediately.  Remember that it’s typically 24-48 hours before a tick can transmit disease after biting.  What would I do?  Well it depends on which dog, yes I have three, tested positive.  For example, it might be a glaring red flag with flashing lights if a two year old dog started showing arthritic symptoms, reluctance to eat and walk.  But in an 11 or 12 year old dog, you might just chalk it up to a bad day.  Just remember, trust your gut.  Nobody knows your dog better than you do.

Ticks are still out there this time of year, so happy hunting!


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