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Ehrlichiosis – What is it and what we can do?

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

You may have seen the news recently about this new disease that can affect our dogs currently spreading across Australia. Ehrlichiosis is a disease caused by a deadly bacteria called Ehrlichia canis (E. canis) which is passed to dogs through the bite of the ‘brown dog tick’ (Rhipicephalus sanguineus).

Up until May of 2020 Australia was believed to be free of this disease, however, now there have been hundreds of reports of dogs testing positive. It has spread across Western Australia and the Northern Territory, with infected ticks also being found in South Australia. Many of the affected dogs are found in regional and remote areas of these states, though there is a growing concern for our pooches throughout the country as the disease continues to spread.

E. canis causes disease by leaving an infected tick and entering the pet’s bloodstream and infecting their white blood cells then rapidly multiplying. The disease is not contagious between animals, though can be transmitted via the brown dog tick picking up and carrying the bacteria.

The disease moves through three phases: acute phase (where we have early signs of the disease), a subclinical phase (where we have recovered from the symptoms and maybe a carrier), and chronic phase (the long-term stage with more severe signs)

Signs of this disease in our dogs can be non-specific and may vary a lot. You may see loss of appetite, fever, lethargy, swollen lymph nodes and weight loss; with more severe signs such as sudden bleeding or bruising, swollen legs, blindness and difficulty breathing. In the most serious cases, the bacteria invades the white blood cells within the bone marrow, which may lead to death as pets are no longer able to fight off infections. Signs of the acute infection may take a few weeks after a tick bite, so it may not be easy to determine the underlying cause.

If your pet is suspected to have this disease, a blood test will be taken and sent off for special testing at a laboratory. As this disease is a notifiable disease, if your dog is suspected to be infected, it must be reported to government authorities in order to help track the spread of this disease. Treatment for Ehrlichiosis includes antibiotic therapy and supportive care, though more intensive treatment may be needed for severe cases.

Although it is yet to become endemic along the east coast, it is up to us as pet owners to help stop the spread by ensuring all pets are covered with tick prevention. If you are travelling with your dog to the northern regions of Australia, it is important to be particularly mindful of this disease, and contact the nearest vet if your dog shows any of the above signs.

Dr Lauren

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