How to Treat Sepsis in Dogs

Maltese on an exam table.
Any breed of dog can develop sepsis.

Getty Images/Sebastian Condrea

Sepsis can affect any dog. It's is a result of an infection that enters the bloodstream and can be life-threatening and caused by a number of different things. Just because a dog has a bacteria in its bloodstream , however, doesn't mean it automatically has sepsis. Knowing what sepsis is, how it is caused, and how it is treated can help dog owners be prepared if they ever have to handle this serious illness.

What Is Sepsis in Dogs?

Sepsis is also known as septicemia and occurs when bacteria or other toxins enter the bloodstream, cause inflammation, and don't go away. Bacteremia, on the other hand, is simply the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream, but the bacteria is quickly removed by the body. If bacteria sticks around in the bloodstream instead of being removed by the liver though, sepsis can occur. Because a dog with sepsis is circulating bacteria throughout its body, this bacteria can decide to settle in one or multiple parts of the body, causing severe and serious infections.

Symptoms of Sepsis in Dogs

Symptoms of Sepsis in Dogs

  • Shaking
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid or difficult breathing

Sepsis causes a dog to feel very ill, but the severity of the infection and what part of the body it is affecting will cause the symptoms of sepsis to vary. Generalized body shaking, weakness and confusion are commonly seen in dogs with sepsis, regardless of what part of the body is most affected. This is usually due to changes in the blood pressure but may also result from having an upset stomach and not feeling well overall. A decrease or lack of appetite alongside vomiting and diarrhea are also common symptoms seen in dogs with sepsis due to the infection and inflammation that the body is dealing well.

If sepsis is not treated, it can progress to septic shock. This occurs when a dog's blood pressure drops dramatically alongside other symptoms and dog owners usually see changes in their dog's breathing patterns. Your dog may start breathing more rapidly or have a hard time taking effective breaths.

Causes of Sepsis in Dogs

Sepsis is caused by an infection that enters the bloodstream and is not treated. The main origins of infections that result in sepsis include:

Diagnosing Sepsis in Dogs

If you suspect your dog has developed sepsis, an immediate visit to your veterinarian is necessary. A full physical examination and patient history will be obtained prior to your veterinarian running some diagnostic tests. A complete blood count, serum chemistry panel, urinalysis, and blood culture sample may be obtained. A fever, an increased white blood cell count, respiratory rate, and heart rate are indicators that your dog has sepsis, but finding the root cause and initial location of the infection may require more testing. Depending on what your veterinarian finds on their physical examination, X-rays may also be taken. A CT scan, MRI, ultrasounds, ECG readings, and other tests may be recommended based on where your veterinarian thinks the sepsis originated.

Treatment of Sepsis in Dogs

Depending on the cause of the sepsis, surgery may be needed but IV fluids and antibiotics will be administered regardless of where the sepsis originated. Various medications to treat different types of illnesses that may result in sepsis may also be used alongside oxygen therapy.

How to Prevent Sepsis in Dogs

The best way to prevent your dog from developing sepsis is to ensure it receives regular veterinary care. If you suspect your dog is sick or has an infection, do not delay getting it treated by your veterinarian. Minor infections can develop into severe infections and ultimately sepsis, but that doesn't mean it will. By treating the infection before it spreads into the bloodstream, you can decrease the likelihood of your pet ever developing this potentially fatal problem.

Is Sepsis Contagious to Humans or Other Pets?

No, sepsis may be the result of an infection, but it can not be spread to other pets or people. Although sepsis itself is not contagious, the underlying cause of the sepsis might be. For example, parvovirus is highly contagious to other dogs so if a dog with parvovirus develops sepsis, the parvovirus can infect other dogs but it may or may not develop into sepsis in that other dog.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Article Sources
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  1. Singer M, Deutschman CS, Seymour CW, et al: The third international consensus definitions for sepsis and septic shock (sepsis-3). JAMA 315:801–810, 2016.