Managing E. Coli in the Kennel
E. coli is found in the gut of every mammal but when it becomes pathogenic, meaning able to cause disease, it becomes a lethal bug that is hard to control. For kennels, this happens most commonly when new animals are introduced. They bring an E. coli strain they have previously developed an immunity to and introduce it to your susceptible dogs. This E. coli is often hemolytic, meaning it ruptures red blood cells in the animal, causing disease and even death.
Biosecurity to keep E. coli out of the kennel is important but once it's been introduced you must manage it carefully back out of the kennel to keep future litters healthy.
What Does Hemolytic E. Coli Look Like?Bloody discharge is often the telltale sign of hemolytic E. coli, such as diarrhea with blood in it. If it affects the kidneys, bloody urination can occur. It can also cause upper respiratory infections with bloody nasal discharge. E. coli can cause pneumonia, especially for puppies that are 10 to 12 weeks old. Pneumonia is less likely for animals under eight weeks. Any sick puppy with bloody discharge should be checked for hemolytic E. coli. Unlike parvo, animals suffering from E. coli will drink water.
Where Did it Come From?Puppies are born with sterile guts and get all their bacteria by day three from mom. Pathogenic E. coli is transferred from mom to the puppy during this time, most commonly through milk. This is often referred to as "toxic milk" or "bad milk."
A mom give puppies both the good and bad bacteria she carries while cleaning them. Unrecognized, pathogenic E. coli can kill the puppy in the first three to five days of life. Pregnancy and whelping stress increases the chances of transfer to puppies, as mom's immune system is less effective at stopping it.
How to Diagnose ItIf a puppy tests negative for parvo but has bloody stools, a microscopic fecal exam will reveal excess rod-shaped bacteria. If seen in excess, treatment with an appropriate antibiotic and support care should be started immediately as it can be the difference between life and death. Fecal samples can also be sent to the lab.
A culture is helpful if you're struggling with the issue but results are slow. It usually takes two weeks to get a culture and find out what will kill the type of E. coli you're dealing with. That is helpful for future cases but not with the current litter. Treat what you see!
How to Treat ItThe number-one priority during treatment is keeping the puppy from dehydrating. Regardless of the age of the animal, electrolytes should complement antibiotic treatment. For cases where the puppy is under two weeks of age, Clavimox or cephalexin is used. A Convenia injection can also be effective and last two weeks. With this treatment you can concentrate on puppy care without giving a daily antibiotic.
For puppies that are four weeks old, sulfa/trimeth or Bactrim has been effective at stopping the issue quickly. This product will also control secondary coccidia at the same time. Tough cases may need to use Enrofloxin but that should be used no longer than five days before shifting to another antibiotic. If Enrofloxin is used longer than five days, your puppies' joints could be at risk for permanent cartilage damage.
Rehydrating and an appropriate antibiotic usually will stop the bleeding caused by the bad E. coli bacteria. Puppies don't make red blood cells until six weeks of age and they can quickly become anemic and weak just from blood loss.
Controlling diarrhea with coating agents like Kaolin/Pectin or DiaGel at the same time is helpful and keeps puppy eating. These coating agents soothe the gut and prevent excess water loss, which is common with E. coli diarrhea. Equally as important is a probiotic to fill the void left from killing E. coli in the gut. Give Doc Roy's® GI Synbiotics gel to the nursing baby twice daily or administer Doc Roy's® Synbiotic powder to older puppies. D.E.S. Health-Gard liquid is equally effective if liquid is desired but use caution not to aspirate if the puppy is under two weeks old.
How to Control ItIsolating and treating new dogs when necessary is, of course, the best way to keep pathogenic E. coli out of the kennel. If you don't bring it in you don't have to get it back out!
To prevent puppy loss from E. coli is you must prevent the transfer of bad bacteria from mom to babies. Putting mom on a probiotic once a day two weeks before her due date and two weeks after birth will change her resident gut bacteria and ensure she only gives good bacteria to her baby while cleaning. Using probiotic gel on babies from day two to seven seeds good bacteria in the puppy's gut. Be sure the probiotic you chose bypasses the stomach or you will be disappointed with the results.
If baby is exposed to bad E. coli, the best prevention of disease is the antibodies found in mom's colostrum! Make sure puppies nurse colostrum several times within a few hours of life. Getting early colostrum antibodies eliminates transfer to baby and puts the puppy on a path to a healthy immune system. Good disinfection practices around nursing puppies decreases the transfer of bad E. coli as well.
Bad milk is usually caused by low grade E. coli mastitis. Bacterial transfer and puppy loss is high if puppies are nursing E. coli contaminated milk. If a mom had "bad milk" with a previous litter, it is important to get her on sulfa/trimeth antibiotic a week before and two weeks after the due date of her next litter.
E. coli is always around but when a disease-causing strain gets introduced into your kennel, you must manage carefully to eliminate its transfer to puppies and then eliminate it from your kennel entirely. That involves disinfecting around newborns to protect them from environmental contamination, preventing transfer of bad bacteria from moms and helping newborn puppies with a probiotic gel. These management best practices are the key to eliminating E. coli diarrhea issues permanently!
Want help with disease management and preventing puppy loss? Call our Pet Care Pros at 800.786.4751.
Don Bramlage, DVM, Former Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health
The materials, information and answers provided through this website are not intended to replace the medical advice or services of your personal veterinarian or other pet health care professional. Consult your own veterinarian for answers to specific medical questions, including diagnosis, treatment, therapy or medical attention.