Tularemia is a zoonotic (transmitted from animals to people) and vector-borne (transmitted from other organisms like insects) disease caused by an infection of the bacterium Francisella tularensis. It is a bacterial organism that can be found throughout the United States as well as the Northern Hemisphere. Tularemia is often called "rabbit fever" as the bacteria can be found in rabbits, but don't let the colloquial term fool you. F. tularensis can be found in a variety of animals besides rabbits, including rodents, reptiles, birds, insects, and even people. It's an infection that can be seen throughout all months of the year in the United States.
Symptoms of Tularemia in Dogs
After contracting the bacteria, it collects in the lymph nodes in your dog's head, neck, and gastrointestinal tract. From there, the bacteria travels to the lungs, liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Generally, clinical signs in dogs are more limited and less severe than other species, but younger or immunocompromised dogs may have more serious illness. If your dog does become ill from infection, symptoms can range from a mild loss of appetite and a low grade fever to a more severe, high fever, conjunctivitis, uveitis, enlarged lymph nodes, abscesses or even organ failure. It is important that you seek immediate veterinary care if your dog starts showing the following clinical signs:
F. tularensis can be transmitted through drinking contaminated water or from contact with contaminated soil or animals. Hunting and consuming infected, small animals is a common mode of transmission. It can also be a 'vector borne' disease, meaning your dog can get tularemia from infected fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes. People can also become infected and quite sick with F. tularensis from similar contact, including contact with an infected pet or animal.
How to Diagnose Tularemia
If your vet suspects your dog has tularemia, they will want to do labwork. A CBC (complete blood count) will check your dog's white blood cell count (WBC). A high WBC is indicative of your dog's body trying to fight off some sort of infection. A chemistry panel will check for a low blood glucose, low blood sodium, high bilirubin levels, as well as organ functions and electrolytes. Your vet may also want to check a urinalysis on your dog to check for signs of illness in the urine. Additional tests will be needed to confirm the infection and will likely need to be sent to an outside lab, so results may take some time.
There are more advanced tests that can check for tularemia antibodies formed by your dog's immune system. These antibodies can be found by checking blood that is sampled two to four weeks apart. Another test, called a PCR can check for tularemia DNA in your dog's blood or tissue.
Treatment for Tularemia
Almost all dogs with tularemia will be given a course of antibiotics. It's important that you always finish a round of antibiotics to help prevent resistance. If your dog experiences vomiting and/or diarrhea on the antibiotic, let your vet know as they may want to switch to a different antibiotic or add on medications that can help protect your dog's GI tract. If your dog has more severe symptoms, more aggressive treatment, including hospitalization and intravenous fluid therapy may be warranted. In most cases, isolation is required due to the risk of infection spreading to people and other animals. Although tularemia is usually treatable, it's important that if you suspect your dog to be infected that you seek treatment immediately. If left untreated, tularemia can be fatal.
How to Prevent Tularemia Infection in Your Dog
As mentioned earlier in this article, tularemia is something that can also infect people. Due to its potential for zoonosis (a fancy term for any animal disease that is also communicable to people), tularemia is what is termed a reportable disease. This means that human medical doctors and veterinarians alike are required by law to report cases of tularemia to their public health officials and to the CDC. This also means that the CDC's website has helpful maps of reported cases from previous years. Keep in mind that the CDC maps show reported cases in people, but it is still a good resource for dog owners as it shows dense pockets as well as areas where tularemia is not as common.
If you live in a hot spot for tularemia, preventing your dog from predating rodents and rabbits can help prevent infections. Likewise, keeping your dog on parasite prevention that covers ticks can help reduce risk. It's also important for you yourself to practice proper hygiene if you live in a hot spot for tularemia. If you have questions about tularemia and your dog, seek out advice from your veterinarian.