toxic shock: the dangers of septicemia
Septicemia, or sepsis, is a dangerous condition in pets in which infective organisms invade the bloodstream. Otherwise known as blood poisoning, sepsis occurs when localized infections spread and become systemic (affecting the entire body system).
Most of the time, sepsis occurs because of bacterial infections. In these cases, sepsis is also known as bacteremia, as the organisms in the bloodstream are bacteria. But any kind of infection, be it viral, fungal, or even parasitic, can infect the blood, resulting in sepsis.
Sepsis most commonly originates from the gastrointestinal tract (like in cases of parvo), but almost any infection has the potential to spread to the bloodstream. Other examples include:
- Respiratory infection (bacterial pneumonia)
- Chronic urinary tract infections
- Severe dental disease
- Contaminated wounds
Pets with sepsis are very sick animals and are in grave danger. Without treatment, they will likely succumb to their disease, so sepsis is always considered a veterinary emergency. Sepsis can cause low blood pressure, low blood sugar, and can cause major organ damage when infective agents are spread through the body. Some kinds of bacteria produce toxins that lead to septic shock, a condition that is rapidly fatal without treatment.
Clinical signs of sepsis include fever, lethargy, and inappetence. Pets suffering septicemia are very sick and generally act it. You may also notice a rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing pattern. If your pet is very ill, it is important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible, even if this means visiting the nearest emergency clinic after hours. If you are acutely concerned about your pet’s health during your veterinarian’s normal office hours, request to be seen right away as an emergency visit rather than wait hours for an appointment.
Your veterinarian will want to start supportive therapy for your pet well before a definitive diagnosis is attained due to the severity of your pet’s illness. Throughout the initial hours of your pet’s hospital stay, blood tests and other diagnostics will be performed to find out what is causing your pet’s illness. Because most cases of sepsis are bacterial in origin, your pet will be started on a broad spectrum antibiotic.
Patients with sepsis who don’t respond to initial therapy may have a blood sample sent to an outside laboratory for a test called a culture and sensitivity. This test will determine what type of bacteria is present in the blood and what antibiotic is best to use for treatment.
Any pet can develop sepsis, but those pets with underlying illnesses or immunosuppression are most at risk, as are very young or geriatric pets.
Sepsis is not to be taken lightly. These pets are very sick, and even with treatment, many pets will still die. If you notice that your pet seems to be under the weather, it is important to seek care for them before their condition deteriorates into one that is life-threatening.