It's essential for every dog caregiver to recognize signs of a medical emergency. Any abnormal activity should be noted, and in some cases, it might be necessary to bring a dog to an emergency veterinarian facility instead of waiting for a scheduled appointment. One of the medical emergencies you should learn to recognize is sepsis in dogs.
What is sepsis in dogs?
Sepsis is an extreme reaction that a dog's body can have in response to an infection. Infections such as bacteremia (blood bacterial infection) do not always lead to sepsis, but when sepsis occurs, it is life-threatening. Severe sepsis can lead to multiorgan failure and ultimately septic shock. Even with the most aggressive treatments from a veterinary hospital, septic shock can quickly become fatal.
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Though it is similar to systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), there are some distinct differences between the two conditions. SIRS is related to severe inflammation, while sepsis is a severe infection that can overwhelm a dog's organs, leading to organ dysfunction syndrome. SIRS can also be caused by trauma in addition to infection.
Symptoms of sepsis in dogs
The symptoms of sepsis in dogs can vary depending on the source of the initial infection. Symptoms can be either hyperdynamic, meaning that the cardiovascular system is experiencing increased activity, or hypodynamic, meaning that bodily functions are slowing down. Symptoms can include:
- Lack of appetite
- Gastrointestinal tract distress resulting in vomiting and diarrhea
- Elevated heart rate (tachycardia)
- Low blood pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Brick-red oral mucous membranes followed by pale mucous membranes — the first one happens in the beginning; the second as the pet deteriorates
What causes sepsis in dogs?
Sepsis in dogs is always caused by a bacterial infection, viral infection, fungal ,and parasitic infections that already exists within their body. It does not occur automatically, but sepsis can develop in response to severe infections if the dog's immune system does not properly address the infection. Sepsis can also occur if the dog doesn't receive the proper medical treatment to fight off the infection when necessary.
Some infections may have a higher likelihood of being the underlying cause of sepsis in dogs. The Gram negative bacterium, E. coli, is the most common cause of sepsis in dogs. Other causes of sepsis can include:
- Kidney infections
- A foreign body in the gastrointestinal tract, which can puncture through the digestive tract and leak bacteria into the abdomen
- Significantly infected wounds, such as a bite wound or an abscess
- Urinary tract infections and pyometra
- Pancreatic infections
- Blood infections
Diagnosing sepsis in dogs
If a caregiver notices symptoms that may indicate sepsis in a dog, it's important to seek treatment immediately. The dog will have to undergo a physical examination as well as blood culture and coagulation tests, often including a complete blood count, urinalysis, and monitoring of their respiratory rate. In some cases, the dog may also need an ultrasound, MRI, or X-rays.
During the evaluation, a veterinarian will look for extremes, such as a fever, abnormally low body temperature, and electrolyte imbalances. They will also evaluate the dog to see if they have low blood pressure (hypotension), low blood glucose, an abnormal white blood cell count, low platelet count, or signs of organ dysfunction.
If the dog is diagnosed with sepsis, treatment with an appropriate antimicrobial will need to begin immediately. The treating veterinarian will determine the best course of treatment based on the symptoms of the dog and the source of the infection. The severity of the condition and findings from the initial evaluation will also impact the course of treatment.
How is sepsis treated in dogs?
Dogs who are diagnosed with sepsis are often admitted to the veterinary hospital to begin treatment immediately. The treatment methods will depend on the severity of the condition.
Septic dogs usually receive intravenous fluid therapy and antibiotics as a baseline treatment. Depending on the dog's condition, they might also need more aggressive treatments. This can include oxygen therapy, blood-pressure-regulating medications, vasopressors, the use of a feeding tube, and even surgery.
The prognosis of dogs with sepsis varies. If a dog receives immediate medical attention, they are more likely to have a good prognosis. However, if the dog experiences severe sepsis or the condition is not attended to promptly, the body can shut down to a point where resuscitation is no longer possible.
Sepsis is a concerning medical condition that can arise in just about any dog who has an infection. As a dog caregiver, the best way to prevent sepsis from occurring is to provide regular veterinary care. A dog who visits a DVM (veterinarian) routinely will have an established baseline that both the veterinarian and caregiver will be familiar with. This makes it easier to recognize any signs of illness in the dog so they can be treated efficiently.
Dog caregivers should always monitor their dogs for any abnormalities or changes to their activity level, appetite, and other bodily functions. Although regular veterinary care can help prevent serious medical problems, such as sepsis, it's still important for caregivers to know the signs of sepsis and the appropriate way to respond if symptoms arise.