My dog has a systemic infection. Now what?!?

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Please note that this is only our experience. It’s anecdotal, not vet med. I am a writer, not a vet, vet tech, nurse, medical doctor, nutritionist, or anything practical whatsoever. Do not take this as medical advice, mk?

A red dog, possibly a pit bull or hound mix, lies on his side tucked into a fluffy white comforter. His head rests on a white pillow. The text overlay reads: What to do if your dog has a systemic infection.

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How it all began…

One night in the middle of November, I climbed into bed with my book and lifted the covers for Cooper. He crawled under and pressed up against my leg, just like he does every single night.

After a while, I realized my leg was burning hot. I pulled down the covers to check on Cooper. He felt on fire. We took his temperature: 104.9. (For reference, a dog’s normal temp is in the 101-102.5 range.)

For a couple days leading up to this, we noticed he seemed tired. Less like himself. That morning he’d skipped breakfast–not uncommon for him in the winter–and spent the day napping. By the time we clocked his temperature, we knew something was really wrong.

The next morning, we got him into the vet first thing, and that appointment kicked off a whole series of tests, therapies, and worries that are still–two months later–ongoing.

I want to share Cooper’s story here and what we’ve learned along the way in case it helps anyone else who’s facing this scary situation with their dog. Let’s start with the basics:

What is a systemic infection in dogs?

Basically, it means exactly what it says: It’s an infection in the entire body–the whole system–instead of an infection in a single spot like an organ or a wound.

The tests to diagnose include blood panels, imaging (CT, ultrasound, etc.), and urinalysis.

The first morning we took Coop in, he was dehydrated. So, while they did take blood, they didn’t look at his urine right away. Instead, they got him on fluids and asked us to bring a sample back the next morning.

When they got his blood work back, his liver enzymes were completely batty (technical term, I think), so his vet ordered an ultrasound. Meanwhile, we started him on a broad-spectrum antibiotic and a liver supplement.

By this point, and as is common with systemic infections in dogs, Cooper wasn’t eating. Not even small bites of really yummy stuff, and we tried everything: lamb meatballs, beef stew, all kinds of cheese, peanut butter, sausage, eggs, anything we could think of to get him to at least take his pills. Nada.

He was down from 55 pounds to 49. So, we started him on an appetite stimulant, too. He was still dehydrated, though, and struggled to keep down any pills. We headed back to the vet where they gave him another round of fluids followed by an injection of a strong antibiotic. They also took cooling measures because his fever was raging again. AND he developed diarrhea that persisted for weeks.

Needless to say, we were fraught.

The next week, we got him in for his ultrasound. The vet recommended an X-ray first, but she said that if they spotted something, they’d order an ultrasound. We opted to skip the X-ray step altogether because we figured we’d end up spending less if he needed it after we paid for an X-ray and we knew it would get a clearer picture and put us on the path to a better treatment for Coop. Because, by this point, he was sleeping all day long. He still had no appetite. He was nauseated and feverish. We wanted to help him and help him fast.

The ultrasound helped us rule out any masses or tumors (thank goodness!!!) and the vet was able to diagnose the systemic infection.

A red pit bull mix with a gray face curls up on a beige sofa with a tortoiseshell cat.

Help! My dog has a systemic infection! What do I do?

First, don’t panic.

Okay, okay. Easier said than done. I panicked. I spent the majority of the first two weeks basically staring at Cooper. We checked his temperature constantly. We talked to the vet every couple of days. It is a worrisome diagnosis, and your dog is likely super, super sick.

It’s scary.

If your dog is battling a systemic infection, here are a few things that helped us:

  1. Keep a clear and open line of communication with your vet. Will he or she respond to emails? Or do they prefer phone calls? When will you get the results of any tests? Should you call to follow up or will they call you? Most importantly, be kind and gracious because they care about your dog and want your pup to get better, too.
  2. Follow all therapies to the letter. The amount of medication we were giving Cooper felt like a lot. It was a lot. I know a lot of people feel really uncomfortable–especially when it comes to antibiotics–but trust your vet. (Side note: If you don’t trust your vet, now’s probably not the time to change. Wait until your dog is stable then make a switch to someone you do trust. Here’s how we found Coop’s beloved vet.) Do what your vet prescribes, and if it doesn’t seem to be working, collaborate with your vet (see #1).
  3. Impose restrictions. Depending on your dog, this might feel impossible. It did for Cooper, who–at 11–is a high-energy guy. No walks, hikes, tug, chase, nada. Rest and lots of it. Just like when we humans are battling big infections, rest is one of the most important things. For dogs who love to play, this can be hard. Luckily (I guess) for us, Cooper was too exhausted for the first few weeks to try to push against this. We’re lucky that we have a backyard for bathroom breaks, too. If you rely on walks for bathroom-ing, keep ’em short and all-business.
  4. Monitor as much as you can from home. Take your dogs’ temperature so you know his current number when you talk to your vet–and so you know if you need to head to the ER. Weigh your dog to see if any prescribed diets are working. Report your dog’s weight to your vet, too. Keep an eye on his gums; they should be a pinkish color and moist instead of tacky. Note and report any changes.
  5. Don’t give up! Cooper seemed to be getting much better. Then he took a turn and got much, much worse. We worked with his vet to adjust his medications. We shifted around what he was eating. He’s getting better, day by day. It’s taken a LONG time, but we never gave up–neither did his vet.

What caused Cooper’s infection? How is he now?

Cooper’s first trip to the vet was November 16. I’m writing this on January 23. It’s been more than two months, and he is finally starting to seem back to his old self. Just this week he began wagging his tail again. He’s playing with toys and eating normally.

It was a long road to get here, though.

Most likely, inflammation caused his bile duct to back up into his gut.

Cooper has a delicate system. Since he was a puppy, we’ve struggled with everything from severe allergies to head tremors. He’s had several IBD flare-ups over the years, and I’m thinking this was just an extra bad flare-up that turned into falling dominoes.

Prior to this, we’d been picking up a dehydrated boxed food and a packaged food for convenience and savings. We decided not to change anything about his routine until we get to the end of this, but he wouldn’t eat anything.

So, we went back to a combination of home cooking and The Farmer’s Dog. (Quick aside: We LOVE The Farmer’s Dog, which is why I’m an affiliate for them. But. You guys, I know. It’s expensive. But every decision in life is one of time versus money. Our hands are FULL right now–stay tuned for a bonkers behind-the-scenes post coming soon–and we need to choose time right now.)

The Farmer’s Dog was the only food we could get him to eat after that first harrowing week when he ate absolutely nothing. We can’t hide his pills in it–that’s another post for another day–but he ate. Then, he started to gain weight. Then, he started to feel better.

He’s currently on a number of medications:

He takes two different antibiotics, one in the morning and both at night. He takes his liver supplement at night, a couple hours after dinner. He takes a powerful probiotic, Forti-Flora, in between meals to help his gut recover. Probiotics must be spaced out from antibiotics, so work with your vet on a feeding schedule. We were doing three tiny meals per day, but we’re back to breakfast and dinner now.

He’s getting better.

Slowly but surely, our little guy is getting well. He hasn’t had a fever in over a month. He’s eating. He’s drinking. He has solid stools again. His energy is coming back, which means we have to make tougher decisions about his exercise restrictions and have loosened up a bit.

He’s doing well, thank goodness, but it’s been a long, bumpy road to get here.

Yes, my dog has a systemic infection, but we are so grateful we’ve had the tools and support needed to fight this battle for him. He’s going to recover, and that’s all that matters.

Has your dog ever experienced anything like this? Have you ever had to battle a systemic infection in your dog? What’s been your experience? I’d love to learn from anyone else who’s been here so we can all figure out how to do better!

Take good care, friends.

Photo by Ruby Schmank on Unsplash: While that dog in the pic at the top looks similar to Cooper, I felt weird taking a picture of him sick-sick-sick and then sharing it. The second photo IS Cooper curled up with Ripley, who loves him dearly and cuddled him the entire time he was sick.

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