Battling Tick-Borne Diseases: A Focus on Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis

Every year, countless dogs across the United States are bitten by ticks. While exact numbers can vary widely based on geographic location and the local tick population, studies suggest that in some regions, up to 50% of dogs may be exposed to disease-carrying ticks. The prevalence of ticks and tick-borne diseases has been on the rise, largely due to factors like climate change and urban sprawl encroaching on natural tick habitats.

Ticks aren’t just a nuisance; they carry serious and often life threatening diseases that can affect both pets and humans. These diseases include Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, as well as others, and all of these diseases have severe health implications. Most have heard of Lyme disease, especially those in the Eastern part of the country, but I want to focus on Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis as these diseases kill numerous pets every year in Northern Arizona and yet are nearly 100% preventable.

Understanding the Tick Risk

Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis are diseases caused by rickettsial organisms, which are bacterial pathogens that predominantly affect blood cells. They are transmitted by ticks, making any pet with outdoor exposure potentially at risk. Depending on your geographical location, the primary culprits for spreading these diseases are the brown dog tick, the lone star tick, and the black-legged tick (Western black-legged tick), also known as the deer tick.

The lifecycle of these diseases begins when a tick, harboring the pathogenic bacteria (Ehrlichia or Anaplasma), attaches to a host to feed. The process of transferring the bacteria from the tick to the host typically requires the tick to be attached for 24-48 hours. This is why parasite preventatives, as well as prompt tick removal, are essential preventive measures.

Pets that spend significant time outdoors, especially wooded, grassy, or bushy areas where tick populations thrive, are at a higher risk. But beware, ticks can be found just about anywhere outdoors! Dogs are especially susceptible to tick bites during their routine activities, such as walking through tall grasses, exploring underbrush, or even just playing in the yard. This makes understanding tick behavior and habitats critical to preventing tick bites.

Close up of Lonestar tick

Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis

When a dog contracts Ehrlichiosis or Anaplasmosis, they typically exhibit symptoms such as fever, lethargy, joint pain, and in more severe cases, bleeding disorders, anemia or sudden death. These diseases affect the dog's blood cells and can lead to significant health issues if untreated, such as chronic joint pain and major organ damage.

In contrast, Lyme disease, caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, primarily affects the joints and, if chronic, can lead to recurrent lameness due to inflammation. Lyme disease may also cause kidney problems, which is less common in Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis.

These symptoms usually appear 1-3 weeks after the tick bite, often making the initial cause (the tick bite) overlooked.

Diagnosing Tick Borne Diseases

Diagnosing tick borne diseases in dogs involves a combination of clinical evaluation and specific diagnostic tests. Veterinarians typically begin with a thorough history to assess any potential exposure to ticks, followed by a physical examination where they look for symptoms such as fever, joint swelling, and lethargy.

  • Blood work plays an important role; a complete blood count (CBC) can reveal anemia or other abnormalities in white or red blood cells indicative of a tick-borne disease.
  • Serological tests are used to detect antibodies against specific pathogens like those causing Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, or Anaplasmosis. (This is similar to a heartworm test for your pup!)
  • In some cases, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and/or antibody titers are necessary to diagnose and manage tick-borne diseases as Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis can hide from detection and occasionally become chronic infections, regardless of treatment.

Tick Disease Treatment Strategies

Treating tick-borne diseases in dogs typically involves a combination of medical intervention and supportive care to address both the infection and its symptoms. It’s imperative to start treatment early to avoid more severe complications such as chronic joint pain or, in severe cases, life-threatening anemia.

Here are some commonly used treatment strategies:

  1. Antibiotics: Antibiotic therapy is the backbone of treatment for tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, and Anaplasmosis. Doxycycline is most frequently prescribed due to its effectiveness against the types of bacteria that cause these diseases. Depending on the severity and the specific disease, treatment can last from 14 to 30 days and sometimes longer.
  2. Anti-inflammatory Medications: For diseases that cause significant joint pain and swelling, veterinarians may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
  3. Parasite Control Products: Ongoing tick control is essential to prevent further infestations and reduce the risk of disease transmission. This includes the use of topical treatments or oral medications designed to repel and kill ticks.
  4. Supportive Care: Depending on the disease and its impact, additional supportive treatments may be necessary. This can include fluid therapy to combat dehydration, pain management solutions, and even hospitalization for more severe cases to provide blood transfusions and supportive care until the dog stabilizes.
  5. Monitoring and Follow-up: After initial treatment, dogs typically require follow-up testing to ensure the infection has been adequately cleared and to assess the response to treatment. Depending on the dog's recovery progress, this might include repeat blood tests or additional courses of antibiotics.

Puppy lab sniffing heartworm and flea medication

Key Strategies for Tick Protection

Preventative measures play a key role in managing the risk associated with these diseases.

  • Preventative Treatments: Utilizing tick preventatives such as specific topical solutions (most over the counter topicals do not kill ticks fast enough to prevent the spread of disease) or oral medications is crucial. These preventatives should be used year-round.
  • Regular Tick Checks: After any outdoor activities, it’s essential to check your dog for ticks. Pay close attention to areas like the ears, neck, and between the toes—favorite spots for ticks to latch on.
  • Environmental Management: Trimming your yard and clearing it of excessive leaf litter or tall grasses can significantly reduce the tick population in your immediate environment.
  • Prompt Removal: If you find a tick on your dog, it should be removed immediately. Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible and pull upward with steady, even pressure. Dispose of the tick by submerging it in alcohol or sealing it in a bag.

The Tale End of Ticks

The prognosis for pets diagnosed early and treated promptly is generally good. However, if left untreated, both Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis can lead to more severe health issues like chronic arthritis, significant immune suppression, autoimmune diseases and other organ-related complications.

My most memorable case of Ehrlichiosis was in a highly pampered, nearly indoor-only chihuahua named Pepper. Befitting his royal status, he rarely touched the ground as he was carried everywhere by his large burley construction working male owner. His backyard was carpeted in lush fake grass, and Pepper ruled over the roost as the only pet in the household. Despite his pampered existence, Pepper acquired Ehrlichiosis and nearly died from the disease even with early detection and aggressive treatment, including a blood transfusion and a week in the hospital. Pepper later developed an autoimmune disease called IMHA, where his body attacks his own red blood cells, which is a rare but serious side effect of Ehrlichiosis.

As pet owners and animal lovers, it’s our responsibility to stay informed about the risks ticks carry and the diseases they transmit. Regular veterinary check-ups, preventive medications, and environmental management are our best tools in preventing Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis, among other tick-borne diseases. For more information on the prevalence of ticks and tick-borne diseases in your area, check out the Companion Animal Parasite Council website at

By understanding these diseases better, we can protect our pets and ourselves from their potentially devastating effects. Let’s keep our guards up and our pets safe. Remember, when it comes to ticks, the best cure is prevention!

This information was first seen on Aspen Veterinary Clinic.

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Contributing DVM