Last Updated on December 12, 2022 by Becky Roberts
You’ve heard of Escherichia coli or “E. coli,” right? These are rod-shaped bacteria that live in the intestinal tract of most warm-blooded animals and human beings. Contrary to popular belief, there’s more than one strain of E. coli. Most of them are harmless and beneficial, producing Vitamin K2 and preventing other harmful bacteria from taking over the gut microbiome. On the other hand, E. coli strains that do cause harm are those that bring about food poisoning, urinary tract infection, meningitis, gastroenteritis, and Crohn’s disease in human beings.
But what about animals, like dogs? They seem to have tougher gastrointestinal systems. For instance, if no one stops them, dogs will scavenge through leftovers in the trash — and they don’t seem to fall ill from eating that stuff. So can dogs get E. coli poisoning?
- 1 How E. coli poisoning happens in dogs
- 2 What E. coli infection in dogs look like
- 3 Renal glomerular vasculopathy (CRGV)
- 4 What to do
- 5 Tips for preventing E. coli infection
- 6 Summary
How E. coli poisoning happens in dogs
In general, harmful E. coli strains affect human beings more often than they do animals, including dogs. So animals tend to be carriers of E. coli rather than its victims (the E. coli O157: H7 serotype, for example).
Nevertheless, it is possible for dogs to fall sick from certain E.coli strains.
It all depends on which strain of Escherichia coli it is and how much of it has contaminated a dog’s gut. When a dog finally develops an E. coli bacteria infection, it usually means that the concentration of harmful E.coli strains is too high for the dog’s gut microbiome to tolerate or control.
How dogs develop E. coli infection also tends to differ from the way we humans get infected. People get E. coli poisoning by eating contaminated food (e.g., improperly cleaned and cooked ingredients that have been contaminated with E.coli bearing feces) or by eating with contaminated hands. Dogs, on the other hand, get E. coli infections more often through:
- Improper cleaning of their anal area — with any existing E. coli from feces bits migrating to other areas of the dog’s body (e.g., urethra)
- Being born of an E.coli-infected mother (and drinking from her infected mammary glands)
- Close contact with animals that have full-blown E. coli infections (i.e., sleeping in the same bed, sharing the same feeding bowl, or licking the other animal)
Note: while it’s not as common, dogs can also get sick from food or water that’s been contaminated by harmful E. coli strains.
What E. coli infection in dogs look like
Because dogs tend to get E. coli infection in ways that are different from humans, the infection manifests in different ways.
The most common E. coli-caused disease found in dogs is colibacillosis. It’s characterized by lesions in the intestines and lungs, and acute septicemia or the sudden onset of blood poisoning.
How a dog catches it
Colibacillosis can show up in dogs of any age. But it is usually a neonatal disease — meaning, it’s a disease acquired by a puppy from its mother. The puppy gets infected through the following ways:
- While still in the womb, the puppy’s bloodstream gets infected by the mother’s infected blood
- Upon birth — going through the birth canal and vagina that are contaminated with E. coli
- While suckling at the mother’s inflamed mammary glands or drinking the infected milk
Colibacillosis is dangerous because the infection leads to blood poisoning. Blood poisoning can then lead to sepsis and multiple organ collapse, which are definitely fatal.
Colibacillosis is a fast disease and its symptoms appear quickly, especially in puppies. If you see a puppy exhibiting any of the physical signs listed below, bring him to the vet immediately for treatment :
- Weakness and lethargy
- Skin that’s cold to the touch (and low body temperature)
- Nose, lips, gums, and inner ears look extremely pale or bluish (due to lack of oxygen in the blood)
- Severe diarrhea
- No appetite
- Abnormally high heart rate
Urinary tract infections (UTI)
While all E. coli variants are usually found in the intestines, anus, and feces, the bacteria can also find their way into a dog’s urethra or urinary tract. When that happens, the dog gets a urinary tract infection (UTI). In fact, E. coli is the most common cause of UTI in dogs.
How a dog catches it
As mentioned earlier, E. coli strains harmful to humans can live in a dog’s gut (in manageable populations) without harming the dog. But if the bacteria is excreted (via feces) out the anus and are smeared onto adjacent areas, these can infect the nearby urethral opening. If the dog’s immune system is weak and it fails to control the spread of E. coli infection there, the dog then develops a urinary tract infection.
If your dog displays the following symptoms or behaviors, it could mean he or she has UTI and must be brought to the vet immediately:
- Constant licking of his or her urinary tract opening
- Whining or crying while urinating
- Peeing often and involuntarily
- Peeing cloudy or bloody urine
Renal glomerular vasculopathy (CRGV)
On top of these illnesses mentioned, there’s one more disease that could be a result of E. coli infection: “renal glomerular vasculopathy” or CRGV. It goes by its more commonly known name, “Alabama rot.”
First identified among greyhounds in the United States during the 1980s, Alabama rot is characterized by skin lesions (or the described “rot”) on a dog’s abdomen, chest, and legs and kidney-related damages. And it can be fatal.
Relatively speaking, Alabama rot or CRGV is a recently identified disease. Scientific research hasn’t yet fully confirmed what causes it. But it is widely believed to be caused by E. coli bacteria toxins. So for now, it’s best for pet owners to consider this disease as a possible outcome of E. coli infection.
The main symptoms of Alabama rot are:
- Visible lesions on the skin of the dog’s limbs, muzzle, abdomen, and chest
- Anorexia or extreme loss of weight and appetite
What to do
If your dog or looks like he’s got some form of E. coli poisoning, consider it a medical emergency. Bring him immediately to the veterinary hospital for physical examination, testing, and treatment. The sooner your dog is treated, the less dangerous the infection is.
Depending on how sick your dog is and his age, the vet will prescribe or apply any one or more of the following treatments:
- Antibiotics (e.g., Cephalexin, Cefpodoxime, or Ceftiofur)
- IV drip (intravenous fluids with glucose and other electrolytes to combat dehydration)
- Pain medication (for UTI)
And yes, your dog will have to stay at the hospital for round-the-clock observation, feeding, and treatment. Without aggressive intervention and vigilance, E. coli infections in dogs have a high mortality rate, especially for elderly canines or puppies.
Tips for preventing E. coli infection
It’s better to keep your dog safe from getting infected by harmful E. coli strains in the first place. To do this, you need to avoid situations that encourage the growth and transmission of E. coli bacteria. Here’s how:
- Keep your dog’s feeding bowls, bed, toys, and living quarters clean. Don’t just wipe or sweep them clean. Use soap and water to wash the feeding bowls. Launder the toys and bed periodically. Wash and vacuum the floor areas regularly.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after handling anything that your dog uses. This is especially important when it comes to handling food, for both you and your dog.
- Pick your dog’s food carefully. If you’re feeding your dog commercially-available dog food (wet or dry), make sure to check the manufacture and expiry dates on each package and use only the newest ones. Follow the instructions for proper storage. If you’re feeding him raw or home-cooked food, pick only the freshest raw meat and vegetables from the most reputable groceries, stores, or butcher shops. Store raw or fresh food properly and use them up in due time. (Remember that all E.coli strains thrive in old, improperly kept, or uncooked food.) Keep everything in your kitchen and food storage areas clean.
- If you sometimes have to put your dog in a kennel or with a dogsitter (when you go off for long journeys), do your research and pick them well. Some kennels and dogsitters don’t always keep their facilities or feeding bowls clean, and your dog could pick up an E. coli infection there.
- If you’ve got more than one dog (or any other pet) and one of them develops an E. coli infection, keep the infected pet quarantined from the others until the infection is eradicated. (No direct contact or sharing of feeding bowls and beds!)
- If you’ve got a pregnant dog, keep her well-fed and clean. Observe her for any symptoms of illness. Have the vet perform a thorough check-up on her health. Any E. coli infection can be detected that way and treated early. Remember that the puppies can get E. coli infection in the womb or through subsequent suckling at your dog’s infected teats.
- Keep a clean (near sterile!) home environment for your pregnant dog and her upcoming puppies.
- Once they’re born, have the puppies checked by the vet as well for any signs of infection and treated right away.
- If both mother and puppies are healthy, make sure all the puppies get to drink enough of their mother’s milk. The milk contains antibodies that can help the puppies’ immune systems fight off any other potential diseases.
So if your dog gets an E. coli infection, you know what to do. Act quickly, and you can keep your fur baby safe and healthy.