Traditionally associated with cold rural areas or overcrowded kennels with poor hygiene, typhus is making a comeback in populated areas including Orange County, Calif., and Austin, Texas. Typhus is caused by the rickettsia bacteria, affects both dogs and humans, and is spread primarily through fleas, ticks or body lice. The blood-sucking vectors deposit feces on the skin of their host as they feed, where it's transmitted to the bloodstream through scratching or other direct contact.
While some symptoms of typhus are similar to distemper -- such as vomiting and diarrhea containing blood -- typhus more often affects old dogs, while young dogs are more prone to distemper. Two of the distinguishing symptoms of typhus are extremely foul breath odor and darkening of the usually white and pink membranes of the eye turning a muddy red-brown color. The dog shakes as if he has the chills and spends most of his time in a sitting position with a listless look in his eyes.
If your dog begins to exhibit symptoms that could possibly be typhus, prompt veterinary attention is crucial. Many dogs die within the first 24 hours of symptoms developing, and even with prompt veterinary care the mortality rate is about 50 percent. Dogs usually have trouble retaining food or water when typhus is present, so your vet will administer fluids intravenously to keep him hydrated and his electrolytes in balance. Antibiotics and other medications are also administered intravenously.
Use flea and tick collars or sprays to prevent your dog from getting infested with parasites that carry the bacteria. Wild animals such as raccoons and rodents are prime sources of the spread of fleas and ticks, so eliminating potential food sources outside your home -- such as dog food, accessible trash or tree fruit lying on the ground -- may prevent them from bringing fleas and ticks on your property. After a hike, check your dog throughly for parasites, especially between his toes, around his tail and where the legs join the body.
Humans may develop typhus even if they are not bitten by an infected insect. Petting a dog infested with pathogen-carrying insects transfers the fecal material and bacteria to your fingertips. Rubbing your eyes, itching your nose or scratching at a break in your skin then transfers the typhus bacteria, setting the stage for potential infection. Wash your hands thoroughly after petting a dog and make sure your kids do the same.
- Centers for Disease Control: Rickettsial (Spotted and Typhus Fevers) and Related Infections
- Orange County Vector Control District: Flea-Borne Typhus
- Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association Volume 62
- American Journal of Veterinary Medicine, Volume 15
- Book Upstairs: Canine Typhus
- City of Austin, Texas: Typhus Data Profile, Travis County
- Orange County Vector Control Division: Flea-Borne Typhus Suspect, Probable or Confirmed Human Cases
- Steve Mason/Photodisc/Getty Images