EHRLICHIA INFECTION (CANINE)
WHAT ARE EHRLICHIA?
Ehrlichia, named for the Dr. Ehrlich who first described them, are a special type of bacteria which infect and live within the white blood cells of their hosts. Different types of Ehrlichia live in different types of white blood cells. Hosts can be human, pet, or wild animals. Ehrlichia are spread from host to host by tick bites and their intracellular location makes them difficult to remove as most antibiotics do not penetrate to the inside of cells.
THE TWO EHRLICHIA OF CONCERN ARE: EHRLICHIA CANIS AND EHRLICHIA EWINGII
THE CRAZY EHRLICHIA NAME GAME (WE ARE REVIEWING THIS TO BE SURE YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT WEB PAGE)
Ehrlichia were originally grouped according to the type of white blood cell they attacked. By finding Ehrlichia inside certain types of white blood cells, one could get a better idea of which type of Ehrlichia one was seeing. Or so we foolishly thought.
With the advent of more specific molecular biology it was found that the rules above are not absolute. Today, RNA sequencing is used to identify the Ehrlichia at hand. In fact, some of the organisms previously believed to be Ehrlichia have been completely reclassified into other groups. We mention this as older terminology dies hard and many people still use the older names of organisms. Here is a current list of the organisms currently classified as Ehrlichia as of a massive renaming/reclassification that occurred in 2001:
Why are we telling you this? Because your vet may be using an older names depending on which system they were trained with.
If your dog has been diagnosed with Anaplasmosis, read that article instead of this one.
WHEN DOGS GET SICK: EHRLICHIA SYMPTOMS
There are three phases of illness with Ehrlichiosis: acute, subclinical, and chronic.
ACUTE PHASE: This phase occurs 1-3 weeks after the host is bitten by the tick. The Ehrlichia organism is replicating in this time period and attaching to white blood cell membranes. During the acute infection, the platelet count will drop and an immune-mediated platelet destruction will occur. The dog will be listless, off food, and may have lymph node and/or spleen enlargement. There may be fever and even neurologic symptoms as well but, though the dog may seem pretty sick, this phase of infection is rarely life-threatening.. Most dogs clear the organism if they are treated in this stage but those that do not receive adequate treatment will go on to the next phase after 1-4 weeks.
SUBCLINICAL PHASE: In this phase, the dog appears normal. The organism has sequestered in the spleen and is essentially hiding out there. Dogs can stay in this phase for months or even years. The only hint that Ehrlichia is hiding is a somewhat reduced platelet count and/or elevated globulin level on a blood test. The blood protein level on a lab report is divided into albumin (an important carrier protein) and globulins (every other blood protein including antibodies.) Long term stimulation of the immune system will elevate globulins, sometimes dramatically. Not all dogs ever progress to the chronic stage but when they do, the prognosis is worse.
CHRONIC PHASE: In this phase the dog gets sick again. Up to 60% of dogs infected chronically with Ehrlichia canis will have abnormal bleeding due to reduced platelets numbers. Deep inflammation in the eyes called “uveitis” may occur as a result of the long term immune stimulation. Neurologic effects may also be seen. Glomeruloneprhitis, resulting in serious urinary protein loss, can also result. Increased globulin levels are almost always seen in this stage, albumin is often low. Most dogs in the U.S. do not show the full “pancytopenia” (literally reduction in all blood cell lines) but severe cell deficiencies are associated with high mortality rates.
HOW THE DIAGNOSIS IS MADE
There are two main tests for Ehrlichia: PCR testing for Ehrlichia DNA or blood testing for Ehrlichia antibodies. Antibody testing has been the main diagnostic for many years but recent availability of PCR testing has changed the approach.
Of course, if one is lucky one will actually see the organisms on a blood smear, as in the images at the top of the page, and this, of course, clinches the diagnosis.
Traditionally, when Ehrlichiosis is suspected, a blood test for antibodies against Ehrlichia organisms can be ordered and even performed in minutes using an in-house test kit. A positive test indicates that the dog has been exposed to Ehrlichia and does not imply active current infection necessarily. A negative titer does not fully rule out Ehrlichia, either, as a very sick patient in the may be too sick to produce antibodies and an early case may not yet have started to produce antibodies. Antibody titers can be measured in the laboratory which makes it much easier to track progression; the in-house test kits are simply either positive or negative and a numeric value is not provided.
Alternatively, a test kit for Ehrlichia can be run while you wait, if your veterinarian's office is so equipped. These tests are accurate but only produce a "positive" or "negative" result so it is not possible to see how an antibody level is changing.
It takes 6-9 months after infection for titers to begin to drop. Antibodies against Ehrlichia canis and Ehrlichia ewingii will cross-react so it is not easy to determine which organism a dog has been exposed to.
Recently PCR testing for the actual presence of Ehrlichia DNA has become available. Commonly a laboratory will offer a "tick panel" which uses PCR testing to screen for a group of classic tick-borne diseases. PCR testing remains positive for several weeks after infection has cleared as PCR testing does not distinguish between live and dead organisms. It takes time to clear dead organisms from the body.
Doxycycline is probably the most effective against Ehrlichia (and any other intracellular blood parasite for that matter). Expect at least a month of treatment to be needed. Response is initially rapid (improvement is notable in the first few days). Dogs in the acute or subclinical stage at the time of treatment can be expected to achieve a cure. A common protocol involves 28 days on doxycycline and a PCR test 2 weeks post-treatment. If this PCR test is negative, then another final PCR test is done in 2 months. If this PCR test is positive, another 28 days of doxycycline is used and a 2 week post-treatment PCR test is repeated as before. If this second post-treatment PCR test is still positive, another medication (such as chloramphenicol or imidocarb) should be used.
If immune-mediated secondary reactions to the Ehrlichia are a problem (such as immune-mediated arthritis, or immune-mediated platelet loss) corticosteroids such as prednisone can be used to palliate the situation while the antibiotics are starting to work.
Dogs in the chronic stage are more difficult to treat as they are sicker and more debilitated. Blood transfusion may be needed and mortality rate is much higher.
Surviving dogs can become re-infected as Ehrlichia immunity is not life-long.
Page last updated: 7/24/2023