Sepsis in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

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

Getty Images/Sebastian Condrea

Sepsis is a serious and sometimes life-threatening condition that can affect any dog. It is a result of an infection that enters the bloodstream that can have many different causes. Just because a dog has bacteria in its bloodstream, however, doesn't always mean that it has sepsis. When left untreated, sepsis can lead to septic shock. This severe state of the infection requires emergency treatment by a veterinarian. 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 illness with their pets.

What Is Sepsis?

Sepsis is also known as septicemia, and it occurs when bacteria or other toxins enter the bloodstream, cause inflammation, and aren't removed by the liver (thus, not leaving the body). Bacteremia, on the other hand, is simply the presence of bacteria in the bloodstream, but this bacteria is quickly removed. If bacteria sticks around in the bloodstream instead of being filtered by the liver, sepsis can occur. Because a dog with sepsis is circulating bacteria throughout its body, this bacteria can settle in one or multiple parts of the body. This causes severe and serious infections. Thankfully, sepsis is less common than bacteremia, but any dog showing symptoms should have a veterinary exam as soon as possible.

Symptoms of Sepsis in Dogs

Sepsis causes a dog to feel very ill, but the severity of the infection and which part of the body it is affecting will cause the symptoms of sepsis to vary. If your dog is diagnosed with sepsis, it might experience the following symptoms:

Symptoms

  • Shaking, weakness, and confusion
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite with vomiting or diarrhea
  • Rapid or difficult breathing

Shaking, Weakness, and Confusion

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 blood pressure, but it may also result from having an upset stomach and not feeling well overall.

Fever

As the infection progresses in your dog's body, fevers can occur. You may see your dog panting or shivering, or even notice that its nose or ears feel warmer than usual to the touch. A sudden fever is an especially important sign that your dog may be septic and needs immediate veterinary attention.

Loss of Appetite With Vomiting or Diarrhea

A decrease or loss of appetite is usually accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea, and these are also common symptoms seen in dogs with sepsis due to the infection and inflammation that the body is fighting.

Rapid or Difficult Breathing

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 rapidly or have a hard time taking effective breaths.

Causes of Sepsis

Sepsis is caused by an infection that enters the bloodstream. When there are more bacteria in the dog's body than its white blood cells can effectively remove, the infection begins and can quickly grow into a serious condition when not treated. Veterinarians typically prescribe antibiotics to prevent infections from spreading to the bloodstream. The main origins of canine infections that result in sepsis include:

  • Gastrointestinal tract infections: Including conditions like parvovirus, GI infections should be monitored by a veterinarian to prevent progression.
  • Respiratory tract infections: Including conditions like pneumonia, respiratory infections can become serious. Similar to those of the gastrointestinal tract, these infections should be monitored closely.
  • Severe dental disease: Your dog's teeth may not appear dirty, but broken teeth or infected teeth in the back of the mouth can easily go unnoticed. If your dog has severe dental disease, the infection can quickly spread to the bloodstream.
  • Chronic urinary tract infections: Like people, it's not uncommon for dogs to develop UTIs. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics to treat urinary tract infections along with other medications as needed.
  • Contaminated wounds: If your dog has an open wound, it's essential to clean the wound regularly to prevent any infection from developing. Contaminated wounds are an easy way for harmful bacteria to enter the body.

Diagnosing Sepsis in Dogs

If you suspect that 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 diagnostic tests. A complete blood count, serum chemistry panel, urinalysis, and blood culture sample may be obtained. A fever and 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 during 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

Your veterinarian may put your dog on antibiotics even before sepsis is confirmed as the diagnosis, as delaying antibiotic treatments can greatly decrease the survival rate when dealing with sepsis. They will likely begin by taking a blood sample to be examined in the laboratory, then immediately starting IV antibiotics to fight the infection as soon as possible.

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. IV fluids can be given to your dog to increase its blood pressure in addition to medications that increase blood flow to major organs. Various medications to treat different types of illnesses that may result in sepsis may also be used alongside oxygen therapy.

Prognosis for Dogs With Sepsis

The prognosis for dogs with sepsis depends largely upon the root cause of the infection as well as how early treatments are begun. Unfortunately, if the condition is not treated early enough to prevent septic shock, many dogs do not survive these serious infections.

If your dog receives immediate veterinary attention when symptoms are first presented, your veterinarian will likely work to find the cause behind the infection. This may result in surgery to remove dead tissue or drain abscesses as well as an adjustment of antibiotics. Different antibiotics can be used to treat specific bacteria, so your vet might change your dog's treatment plan once laboratory results are returned to identify the bacteria in your dog's body.

How to Prevent Sepsis

The best way to prevent your dog from developing sepsis is to ensure it receives regular veterinary care, especially when other diseases or infections are present. Sepsis is typically caused by other illnesses that result in severe infections, but it can also happen when your dog has open wounds. The following prevention steps are helpful:

Preventing Infection From Other Illnesses

When your dog is dealing with another illness that can cause infection, it's essential for your veterinarian to monitor its condition regularly. Do not delay treatment when any health concerns are present. Minor infections can develop into severe infections (and ultimately sepsis), but this can be prevented. By treating the infection before it spreads into the bloodstream, you can decrease the likelihood of your pet ever developing this potentially fatal problem.

Cleaning Wounds Regularly

Even if your dog is otherwise healthy, having an open wound can quickly lead to infections. Ensure that any wounds are cleaned regularly, and in the case of severe wounds, seek veterinary help as soon as possible. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics, either oral or topical, to prevent the chance of any infections developing.

Is Sepsis Contagious to Humans or Other Animals?

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 this condition might be. For example, parvovirus is highly contagious to other dogs. If a dog with parvovirus develops sepsis, the parvovirus can infect other dogs, but it may or may not develop into sepsis in others.

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(8):801-81, doi:10.1001/jama.2016.0287

  2. Infections Caused by Bacteria. Merck Veterinary Manual.