Sepsis in Dogs

Sepsis in dogs is a medical emergency that occurs when the body is fighting a losing battle against an overwhelming infection in the blood.

Dogs with sepsis quickly become very ill, needing immediate and intense veterinary care.

If your dog is showing any signs of sepsis, act quickly to get them the care they urgently need and give them the best possible chance of survival and recovery.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis, also known as septicemia or blood poisoning, is a blood infection. It is part of a spectrum of medical conditions that develop when a microorganism – usually bacteria – enters the bloodstream. 

The spectrum begins with bacteremia, the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream. Under normal circumstances, the bacteria are removed from the blood when the blood passes through the liver, and no illness occurs.

Bacteremia progresses to sepsis if the liver cannot remove the bacteria from the blood. These bacteria remain in the blood and release toxins, triggering a severe inflammatory response (sepsis).

Without immediate and aggressive treatment, sepsis can progress to septic shock. Septic shock in dogs leads to multi-organ failure, and survival is unlikely.

Causes of Sepsis in Dogs

Bacteria most commonly cause sepsis, but any microorganism, such as viruses and parasites, can enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis. 

Bacteria or other microorganisms can enter the blood from a skin wound or another site in the body. Here are the most common sites of initial infection for sepsis in dogs, along with some examples of diseases in these locations that can lead to sepsis:

  • Skin wounds
  • Gastrointestinal tract: parvovirus, colitis (inflammation of the colon)
  • Respiratory tract: pneumonia
  • Oral cavity: periodontal disease
  • Urinary tract: bladder infection, pyelonephritis (infection of the kidneys)
  • Reproductive tract: pyometra (infection of the uterus)

Dogs with weak immune systems – such as very young or old dogs – have an increased risk of sepsis because their immune systems are not strong enough to fight off infections. Dogs receiving cancer treatment or taking steroids may also have weak immune systems.

Symptoms of Sepsis in Dogs

Sepsis makes dogs seriously ill. Symptoms of sepsis can vary according to the site of initial infection. Here are some symptoms to look for:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Shaking
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Anorexia
  • Collapse
  • Lethargy
  • Rapid, difficult breathing

Diagnosing Dog Sepsis

Diagnosing sepsis in dogs should be done soon after the onset of symptoms so treatment can begin as quickly as possible. 

Diagnosis begins with a thorough history and physical examination. Your veterinarian will ask you about your dog’s medication history and any recent experiences with trauma or surgery, among other questions.

Your veterinarian will assess your dog from head to toe during the physical exam. Low blood pressure, a sudden high fever, and a rapid heartbeat are common physical exam findings in dogs with sepsis. 

Diagnostic testing for sepsis can be extensive, given that sepsis is so widespread. Your veterinarian will perform basic laboratory work, including bloodwork and a urinalysis. Blood work reveals an increased white blood cell count, indicating infection. A high white blood cell count in the urine indicates an infection in the urinary tract.

Imaging tests, such as X-rays and ultrasound, can provide additional clues regarding where the initial infection started.

An electrocardiogram may be performed to evaluate your dog’s heart for abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).

Blood cultures look for bacteria in the blood. However, bacteria may not grow in culture, and results take at least several days. Because sepsis is a medical emergency, your veterinarian will begin treating your dog before blood culture results are available.

How to Treat Sepsis in Dogs

Treatment for sepsis must be immediate and aggressive to eliminate the initial infection and prevent septic shock. Dogs with sepsis are hospitalized for at least several days.

Antibiotic treatment with broad-spectrum antibiotics begins immediately. Broad-spectrum antibiotics target a wide range of bacteria. When the blood culture results are available, your veterinarian may need to adjust the antibiotic regimen to target the specific bacteria identified in the blood culture.

Other treatments for sepsis in dogs are listed below:

  • Intravenous fluids
  • Nutritional support
  • Oxygen supplementation
  • Medications to improve blood pressure
  • Medications to relieve nausea and vomiting
  • Surgery

Surgery may be needed to eliminate the source of infection. For example, if your dog’s intestines have ruptured, surgery would be necessary to remove the section of damaged intestines.

Dogs with sepsis do not have a good prognosis. Despite treatment, the survival rate for sepsis in dogs is about 50%. [1] That percentage is even lower for dogs in septic shock.

Dogs that survive sepsis and are discharged from the hospital may have permanent organ damage and require lifelong therapy for continued survival.

How to Prevent Sepsis in Dogs

Routine veterinary care, early treatment of infection, and proper wound care help prevent sepsis in dogs. Routine veterinary care will help your veterinarian detect an infection early and begin the appropriate treatment to prevent progression to sepsis.

Proper wound care will help prevent bacteria from overwhelming your dog’s body. Basic first aid can treat minor and superficial wounds at home, but deep and severe wounds require veterinary treatment.

Reference:

  1. de Laforcade AM, Freeman LM, Shaw SP, Brooks MB, Rozanski EA, Rush JE. “Hemostatic Changes in Dogs with Naturally Occurring Sepsis.” J Vet Intern Med. 2003 Sep-Oct;17(5):674-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1939-1676.2003.tb02499.x. PMID: 14529134. Retrieved from:

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