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E. coli in dogs: symptoms, causes and treatments

Dalmatian dog advice

Contaminated food or water can give a dog E. coli.

© Shutterstock

E. coli may be a normal bacteria in a dog's gut, but there are certain situations when you'll have to take it seriously. 

By Dr Holly Graham BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS

Updated on the 11/08/2020, 13:38

E. coli is considered a normal bacteria that can be found in the gastrointestinal tract of most dogs. In adult dogs, it rarely causes gastrointestinal issues but can cause colibacillosis in young puppies. E. coli is sometimes found as the cause of a urinary tract infection in adult dogs.

Colibacillosis in puppies causes signs of septicaemia, usually in the first few weeks of the puppy’s life. Signs are sudden and include: depression or lethargy or weakness; dehydration; poor or no appetite; vomiting and diarrhoea; a fast heart rate; low temperature; a blue tinge to mucous membranes – gums, ears, anus or vulva.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

The disease is caused by the spread of E. coli either through ingestion of a mother’s milk, or an infection in-utero (the spread of the bacteria from the mother to the puppy through blood). Puppies with poor immune systems or those living in dirty environments are more likely to be infected.

Treatment of colibacillosis usually requires hospitalisation and intensive care, as puppies become very sick quickly. Affected puppies may require either intravenous fluids or fluids given under the skin. Antibiotics can be given as injections or intravenously, and are usually started straight away. Nutrition is another important factor. If treatment isn’t given immediately, the condition can become very serious and can be fatal.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Urinary infections in adult dogs are usually less of an emergency and cause regular signs of a urinary tract infection. Symptoms include urinating more often, pain when urinating, passing small amounts of urine, or you may notice small spots of blood in your dog’s pee.

Urinary tract infections (UTI) can be very painful, and in severe cases can spread from the bladder to the kidneys – so these should be treated as soon as possible. E. coli normally infects the bladder via an ‘ascending infection’. This means that bacteria from the environment contaminates the skin around the penis or vulva, and migrates up the urethra to the bladder, where it multiplies. It’s likely a vet will need a urine sample to diagnose this, and it may be sent to a lab to grow the bacteria. Antibiotics will be dispensed and your dog may need a short course of anti-inflammatory medication.

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How does a dog get E. coli?

Dogs are normally infected with E. coli through the same way that humans are – by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. Usually it’s because the food or water has been exposed to faecal material, and dogs living in unsanitary environments are much more likely to catch this. E. coli can be present in raw diets, however most animals are unlikely to contract colibacillosis from this, providing they are healthy. Washing food bowls and maintaining good hygiene reduces the chances of catching this from dog food.

Is E. coli in dogs contagious to humans?

E. coli can occasionally spread from dogs to humans. However, humans that are infected with this usually have mild and self-limiting diarrhoea. The bacteria is spread through faeces or contaminated food material, so preventing infection is easy with good hygiene and handwashing.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk

Can E. coli kill a dog?

E. coli is a normal bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract of most dogs. Most dogs are unaffected by the bacteria and don’t show any signs of illness. Unwell dogs or young puppies may become unwell if infected with the bacteria and colibacillosis is a serious condition in young animals. Unfortunately many puppies who become ill with an E. coli infection die from the disease. Dogs with an E. coli UTI usually respond well to treatment.

Can you get E. coli from dog poop?

Humans can become infected with E. coli from dog poo, as it’s normal to find some of this bacteria in your dog’s faeces. Handwashing after touching this or after cleaning your dog’s kennel should prevent any infection.

E. coli in a dog's paws

Dogs that live in dirty kennels or have poop on their paws may have E. coli present on the skin of their paws. If their skin is healthy and there are no wounds or irritated patches, this is unlikely to cause any problems. If E. coli gets into a wound or a sore patch on the skin, it may cause a local infection, but is unlikely to spread to other areas on the body from here. A vet may need to take a swab of the area to diagnose this, and your dog might need some antibiotics to help clear the infection. Regular cleaning of your dog’s environment and paws should help to prevent any infection.

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E. coli in a dog's ears

E. coli is an unusual bacteria to find in a dog's ear, as this isn’t a normal skin bacteria. It may be that your dog has some poop on their paws and if they have scratched at the ear the bacteria might have been introduced this way. While it’s not a common bacteria to find in the ear, provided there is no antibiotic resistance, the infection should be easy to treat with ear cleaners and antibiotic drops. If you notice your dog’s ear looks red, waxy, hot, or they’re scratching or shaking their head, consult a vet.

E. coli in a dog's faeces

It’s completely normal to have some E. coli present in faeces and, if your dog isn’t showing any signs of illness, it’s probably nothing to worry about. If your dog is showing any signs of gastrointestinal problems, like vomiting or diarrhoea, a vet may request faecal samples. But usually E. eoli doesn’t cause any problems in healthy adult dogs. The bacteria in your dog’s poop can be spread to other dogs, and can cause illness in young puppies, so cleaning up after your dog is always a good habit to get into.

Can dogs get E. coli from raw meat?

Raw meat commonly contains E. coli bacteria. The bacteria is easily killed by cooking, however if you’re feeding a raw meat diet to your dog, there’s an increased chance they could develop a food-borne infection. Dogs on a raw diet may shed higher numbers of E. coli bacteria in their faeces too. If your dog is on a raw meat diet, make sure all food bowls and preparation areas are kept clean, and try not to let them lick your hands or face.

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E. coli in a dog's lungs

E. coli is a bacteria that can cause pneumonia in dogs. Pneumonia is a condition that affects the lungs and can be very serious. Dogs with compromised immune systems or an existing disease that affects the respiratory system are more likely to develop pneumonia. Signs of this include faster or laboured breathing, noisy breathing, exercise intolerance, a fever or a cough. If you think your dog could have any problems with their breathing, seek veterinary advice immediately. Treatment of pneumonia usually requires antibiotics and may need additional drugs such as bronchodilators and nebulisation. Pneumonia can make dogs very sick – and can be fatal.

Haemorrhagic E. coli in dogs

Most types of E. coli bacteria found in the gut of dogs do not cause any problems. Certain strains of E. coli can be associated with diarrhoea and occasionally this can become bloody or ‘haemorrhagic’. Severe haemorrhagic diarrhoea can require hospitalisation to treat – lots of dogs with these signs require fluid therapy, gut protectants and may need antibiotics to help settle the infection. Small numbers of these E. coli bacteria are unlikely to cause disease.

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How to treat E. coli naturally

Most dogs don’t need any treatment for E. coli, as it is a normal bacteria to find in the gut. Keeping your dog's kennel and food bowls clean can help to prevent the spread of it between dogs, or between you and your dog. If your dog is showing any signs of respiratory, urinary or gastrointestinal disease, and you are concerned that this may be caused by an E. coli infection, please talk to a vet. Unfortunately, there aren’t any natural remedies that can treat bacterial infections.

When should I see a vet?

If you notice any problems with your dog, it’s always best to get them checked out as soon as you can. Respiratory problems are considered an emergency, and urinary or gastrointestinal disease may require urgent attention. If your dog is showing any signs of being unwell, make an appointment with a vet for a health check.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk