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Sepsis in Dogs

What Is Sepsis in Dogs?

Sepsis in dogs represents an extreme bodily response to an infection, comprising both the infection itself and the systemic reaction it triggers. Typically instigated by bacterial infections, sepsis can also stem from viruses, parasites, or fungal agents. It manifests as a progression from a basic bloodstream bacterial infection (bacteremia) to systemic inflammation (systemic inflammatory response syndrome or SIRS), followed by organ damage and failure (severe sepsis), plummeting blood pressure, reduced blood flow, and oxygen supply to the organs, culminating in septic shock. If left untreated, septic shock can progress to multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS) and death, making it a pressing medical emergency demanding immediate veterinary attention at the nearest emergency hospital if sepsis is suspected.


The symptoms of sepsis in dogs can vary depending on the type and site of the primary infection. However, typical signs associated with sepsis comprise:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lack of appetite (anorexia)
  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Fever
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Increased heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea)
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)


The origins of sepsis in dogs lie in infections that penetrate the bloodstream. Common sites of initial infection include:

  • Gastrointestinal (GI) tract: Bacteria and viruses from the GI tract can enter the bloodstream. Examples include parvovirus moving from the intestines. Other causes encompass peritonitis and ruptures in the stomach or intestines due to ulcers, trauma, or foreign objects causing blockages.
  • Respiratory tract: Bacterial, viral, or fungal pneumonia can initiate sepsis.
  • Oral cavity: Severe dental and periodontal disease can harbor substantial bacterial populations in tartar, which may enter the bloodstream and trigger sepsis.
  • Urinary tract: Severe or chronic kidney infections (pyelonephritis) or bladder infections (UTI) can permeate the bloodstream and lead to sepsis.
  • Wounds: Infected skin wounds can serve as sources of sepsis.
  • Reproductive tract: Uterine infections (pyometra) can cause uterine ruptures or translocate into the bloodstream.

Although the locations mentioned above are common sources of sepsis, infections originating from bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungi in any part of the body can induce sepsis, initiating a cascade of bodily responses that progress through bacteremia, systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), severe sepsis, septic shock, multiple organ dysfunction syndrome (MODS), and ultimately, death.


To diagnose sepsis in dogs, veterinarians typically begin by collecting a comprehensive medical history, including recent wounds, trauma, surgeries, and current medications, particularly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which can offer insights into potential sources of sepsis. Subsequently, a thorough physical examination is conducted to evaluate signs of abdominal pain, respiratory distress, or fever.

Investigation into any potential sources of infection follows. Initial diagnostic steps often include a complete blood count, serum blood chemistry, and urinalysis to detect sepsis-related abnormalities in the pet’s bloodwork. Additional diagnostic measures such as chest x-rays and abdominal ultrasound may be advised to pinpoint the infection’s origin. Once identified, cultures are usually obtained to identify the specific bacteria or organisms responsible for the infection and determine the most effective antibiotic for treatment.


Treatment for sepsis in dogs is determined by your pet’s medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic findings. Hospitalization with intravenous (IV) fluids to maintain hydration is typically necessary, alongside medications to stabilize blood pressure and alleviate symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or pain. Antibiotics are essential components of treatment. Oxygen therapy might be administered if breathing difficulties arise.

In cases where the infection’s origin warrants it, emergency surgery may be required to address the underlying issue causing sepsis. Exploratory surgery and rectification of the underlying problem, such as ruptured intestines or uterus, are vital for successful sepsis treatment. Removing the infection source, when feasible, is a critical step before proceeding with medical management.

Recovery and Management

Prompt diagnosis and treatment of sepsis are crucial for a favorable outcome and survival in dogs. Typically, dogs with sepsis require hospitalization for three to five days, sometimes longer, receiving IV fluids, antibiotics, and nutritional support which may involve the use of a feeding tube. Despite intensive care, the survival rate typically stands at around 50%.

Most dogs can be discharged once they are free from fever and exhibit normal heart rate and blood pressure. They may need to continue antibiotics for a period of two to six weeks, depending on the infection’s source and type. In cases where surgery was performed, a recuperation period involving restricted activity spanning 10 to 14 days is typically advised.

Sepsis is a serious, life-threatening condition necessitating immediate treatment due to its potentially fatal consequences. However, most dogs that survive tend to fully recover and resume normal lives.

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