Tularemia, casually referred to as "rabbit fever," is a bacterial illness affecting animals and people. Your cat or the rabbit outside is more likely to be infected with this disease than you or your pup. However, if your pup comes down with this serious illness, prompt treatment with antibiotics is vital.
Francisella tularensis is the culprit bacteria at the heart of tularemia. It's a zoonotic infection, meaning it can be passed across species. Ticks are a common vector for the disease, however if your pup interacts with any infected animal, he's at risk for infection. He can become infected if he eats a carrier, inhales the bacteria or if the bacteria penetrates his mucous membranes or a cut or lesion on his body.
This bacteria is basically a parasite in the cells it resides in, which are usually a specific type of white blood cell. White blood cells are integral to the body's ability to fight off illness and become compromised with the presence of the tularemia bacteria. The bacteria rapidly multiply and cause illness. Symptoms include tick infestation, lethargy, jaundice, sudden fever, enlarged lymph nodes, dehydration, decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, a tender abdomen and ulcers or white patches on the tongue. Tularemia can take hold of your pup very quickly, and it's not unusual for a dog to die before he's diagnosed.
It's very difficult to diagnose tularemia, partly because it progresses so rapidly. In fact, many diagnoses are made from necropsy, after a dog has succumbed to the illness. If the vet suspects tularemia, you'll need to give a thorough history of your dog's health, including his encounters with ticks and other animals. In addition to standard lab work, a specialized lab may be utilized to confirm the suspicion of rabbit fever. Quick diagnosis is vital, as the prognosis is generally poor for animals where the disease has begun its spread.
It's good news that tularemia infection is quite rare for people and dogs. However, there aren't specific protocols for treating dogs in the exceptional cases it occurs. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association notes treatment for animals should be based on successful treatment for humans. Since tularemia is a bacterial disease, antibiotics are the treatment of choice. Infected humans are typically given streptomycin and gentamicin, which may work in your dog, too. The Merck Manual for Veterinary Medicine recommends gentamicin for 10 days and tetracycline and chloramphenicol for 14 days. Any supportive care will be done at the vet, since a dog fighting a tularemia infection requires veterinary care.
The first order of business is to keep your pup from becoming infected with tularemia. That means discouraging him from hunting and eating rabbits and other rodents that may carry the bacteria. Tick and flea control is important as well; a flea and tick preventive will go a long way to keep potential carriers away.
- American Veterinary Medical Association: Zoonosis: Tularemia
- PetMD: Bacterial Infection (Tularemia) in Dogs
- PetPlace: Tularemia in Dogs
- San Diego State Veterinary Extension: Tularemia in Animals in South Dakota
- The Merck Manual for Pet Health: Tularemia in Dogs
- Merck Manual for Veterinary Medicine: Overview of Tularemia
- Janie Airey/Digital Vision/Getty Images