Tularemia or rabbit fever in dogs

Tularemia or rabbit fever in dogs

Health & Safety

Tularemia, or to give it its more common name, “rabbit fever,” is a condition that generally infects rabbits, as the name suggests! It is often widespread throughout wild rabbit and hare populations in the UK, and so a great many areas of the country will potentially be inhabited by rabbits that are affected with the condition. Tularemia is a zoonotic condition, and one that can also infect dogs, who can pick it up from contact with rabbits in the wild. If your dog is apt to hunt rabbits, or even other small animals that can also catch the condition such as rats and mice or birds, they might find themselves at risk of developing the condition as well.

However, even if your dog is not a hunter and is not apt to chase rabbits or eat scavenged road kill and other nasties, this does not mean that they are automatically safe from developing the condition. Tularemia can also be transmitted via tick bites, and as both rabbits and dogs have a tendency to pick up ticks in areas that are affected by them, your dog might even develop the condition by means of a simple tick bite.

Tularemia in dogs is a serious and potentially fatal condition that can develop suddenly, and while it is not rampant in the UK, it is wise to be alert to the signs and symptoms of the condition, particularly if your dog is apt to hunt, is walked in an area where there are lots of rabbits, or if you live in an area that is also home to lots of ticks.

Read on to learn more about tularemia, or rabbit fever in dogs.

What is tularemia?

Tularemia is caused by the Francisella tularensis bacteria, which thrives in wet, humid and damp environments and can survive in the wild for relatively long periods of time. It is most likely to peak during the warmer spring and summer months of the year, and if exposed to the condition, can take anything between one day and a fortnight to become symptomatic in the dog.

It is also worth noting that humans can catch tularemia as well, either from affected dogs or directly from contact with infected ticks or wild rabbits. If your dog is diagnosed with the condition, it is also a good idea to visit your own doctor to get checked out for infection too!

The symptoms of tularemia infection in dogs

Tularemia or rabbit fever can take anything from a day to a fortnight to show symptoms in the dog, but once it does become symptomatic, it develops quickly and soon gets worse.

The first and most obvious symptom of tularemia is a sudden high fever that appears to happen almost at once rather than taking hours or days to develop. Even without taking your dog’s temperature with a thermometer you will likely be aware that something is amiss, as the other symptoms of rabbit fever are also quite pronounced, and can cause severe sickness and some very out of character behaviours in your dog.

Your dog’s limbs will appear both weak and stiff to the touch, and they will become lethargic, showing no interest in food, drinking or exercise. As the condition advances, you may also notice swelling in the lymph nodes, and jaundice of the eyes. Your dog’s stomach and abdominal area may swell and become tender as the spleen and liver become enlarged, and there may be a visible discharge from the eyes and nose.

All of these symptoms will develop relatively fast, often within the span of just a few hours, and so you should seek veterinary treatment promptly and not simply wait and see how the condition will develop.

Veterinary treatment for tularemia

As mentioned, tularemia is a serious, sudden onset condition that can prove fatal, and so you should not delay in seeking veterinary treatment for a potentially infected dog. Tularemia can prove fatal within just a few hours, and the sooner that you seek treatment, the better your dog’s ultimate chances of survival and recovery.

Your vet will need to take a sample of your dog’s blood to test for an elevated white cell count, which may indicate that tularemia is present in the blood and give your vet enough information to begin treatment. However, in order to definitively confirm diagnosis, your vet will likely need to send some blood samples away for specialist analysis while treating under the assumption of tularemia in the meantime.

Tularemia is treated by means of the administration of fast-acting antibiotics, and supportive care and monitoring to keep your dog hydrated and deal with the potential effects of the disease infecting the spleen and liver. This will almost certainly mean that your dog will need an inpatient stay in the clinic for at least a couple of days.

Can you prevent tularemia in dogs?

While there is no sure-fire way to ensure that your dog does not catch tularemia, there are some precautions that you can take to minimise the likelihood of them catching it.

Treat your dog regularly with a spot-on anti-parasitic that is effective against ticks to prevent ticks from latching onto your dog, and remove any ticks promptly and monitor your dog carefully afterwards. Muzzle your dog to prevent them from hunting smaller wildlife or scavenging dead wildlife that they find, and try to keep your dog out of marshy, wet areas of land that provide the perfect environment for tularemia to thrive.

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