Rickettsia in Dogs - Symptoms and Treatment
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When our dog has external parasites such as fleas or ticks, we will eventually notice their infestation. We will see the dog scratch themselves more often and the parasites are visible to the naked eye. With internal parasites, their presence can be more difficult to detect. We might see some generalized symptoms, but it may not be until we see eggs in their stool or even an entire worm that we know the nature of the problem. Some parasites are even smaller and more difficult to detect, as is the case with rickettsiae. This is a bacterial intracellular parasite that is devastating to the dog and poses a serious risk to others in the home.
At AnimalWised, we explain all you need to know about rickettsia in dogs. We look at the symptoms and treatment of this parasitic disease, as well as how you can prevent it from affecting your dog.
What is rickettsia in dogs?
There is a little confusion over the term ‘rickettsia’, but the basic concept is the same. The genus Rickettsia contains various obligate intracellular bacteria, some of which can parasitize animals, humans, insects and even plants. The disease ‘rickettsia’ is an infection which is caused by bacteria from this genus, but also other bacteria from the order Rickettsiales. For this reason, the disease is sometimes known as a rickettsial infection in dogs.
Since these parasites are a type of bacteria, you may wonder what is the difference between parasitic and bacterial infection. While other types of bacteria can live outside of a host and cause infection, rickettsia bacteria are obligate. This means they require a host to survive and will die without them. They are intracellular because they parasitize the cells of their host from within. Rickettsia parasites can be the following shapes and sizes:
- Coccus (0.1 μm in diameter): spherical or round shape.
- Bacillus (1–4 μm long): rod shaped.
- Threads (up to about 10 μm long): thread shaped.
Since the rickettsia bacteria can be carried by arthropods such as fleas and ticks. When these external parasites on dogs bite the animal, they can transmit the bacteria into their blood cells. They then parasitize the cells and result in the various symptoms we will explain below.
Perhaps confusing the matter further, rickettsia bacterial infections result in different diseases in the dogs. These are zoonotic, meaning they are diseases which can be spread from dogs to humans. In this article, we will focus on those which commonly affect dogs and humans such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Boutonneuse fever.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever in dogs
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a disease caused by the bacterial species Rickettsia rickettsii. It is a very serious disease in humans transmitted by ticks and is common in different areas of the United States. More cases occur during spring and summer, as good weather favors tick activity. In addition to dogs, rodents are common reservoirs of rickettsia bacteria.
Symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in dogs
When a dog is infected by Rickettsia rickettsii, they will display the following symptoms:
- Weight loss
- Respiratory problems
- Facial and limb edema
- Pain in muscles and joints
Due to the instability Rocky Mountain spotted fever causes in the dog, we will also likely see changes to their gait. They will also have behavioral changes and will experience seizures once the disease is sufficiently advanced. If the heart becomes inflamed, a condition known as myocarditis can develop and result in the death of the dog. Internal bleeding can be seen in blood in their stool and urine, but the dog can also bleed from their mouth and nose.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever in dogs treatment
As with all types of rickettsial infections in dogs, we need to take the animal to the veterinarian. Through physical examination and other diagnostic tests, they will determine the type of bacteria. This will be carried out by taking a serum sample and carrying out an analysis on the dog's blood. Once the Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria has been confirmed, the veterinarian will provide the corresponding antibiotic.
Treatment will usually last around 2-3 weeks, with symptom management required in addition to antibiotics. This is a potentially fatal disease, so prompt diagnosis and treatment is vital. Similarly important is preventive deworming to prevent ticks, fleas and other parasites in dogs.
Boutonneuse fever in dogs
This disease is caused by Rickettsia conorii and is also transmitted by ticks. The dog acts as a reservoir, so other external parasites can feed on the dog, become infected themselves and then transmit it to other animals or humans. It is common in the Mediterranean areas of Europe, with a seemingly greater incidence rate in the last few years.
Symptoms of Boutonneuse fever in dogs
There is not always a clinical picture in dogs infected with Rickettsia conorii, often being asymptomatic. The problem is that it can be passed on to humans. Dark lesions will appear on the bite site by the tick. It produces fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain. These symptoms can be confused with the flu. Skin rashes can develop which can help determine the specific cause.
In severe cases, kidney failure, coagulation and liver problems can occur. This can stop the person's central nervous system and result in death. Conversely, it can also be asymptomatic in some people. If it symptoms do develop in the dog, the clinical picture would be similar to that of humans.
Boutonneuse fever in dogs treatment
As with the previous type of rickettsia in dogs, it should be the specialist who prescribes the treatment. This will be specific to the type of bacteria that presents in the dog. Since the rickettsial infection can be asymptomatic, we need to be very careful with ticks in general. If we see the dog has been bitten by ticks when out for a walk, we should mention this the next time we take the animal for a checkup.
Ticks are carriers of multiple diseases which can affect dogs or humans. If we see the dog has been bitten by a tick, we need to know how to remove the tick carefully, as well as monitor the dog for any symptoms. Watch our video below to see how to remove a tick if one has bitten your dog, as well as the best methods of prevention:
Can rickettsia in dogs be cured?
As we have explained, Rickettsiae bacteria can cause serious diseases in our dogs. While rickettsial infections are curable, they are likely to be fatal if they are not treated in time. Other factors can influence the dog's ability to overcome canine rickettsia, such as their age and their level of immunity.
You may wonder if there are home remedies for rickettsia in dogs, but there are not. We need to take the dog to a veterinarian. Not only will they be able to determine the cause of their symptoms, but they will need to carry out laboratory analysis to confirm the type of Rickettsia bacteria. Only then can they prescribe the correct antibiotic to treat the parasitic disease.
Prevention of rickettsia in dogs
Although prompt diagnosis and treatment of rickettsia in dogs is vital, prevention is always preferred. This means the dog will not be infected and undergo any of the associated symptoms of the disease. The following are the best prevention methods of rickettsia in dogs:
- In agreement with our veterinarian, we must establish and comply with a deworming schedule appropriate to the characteristics of our dog and the parasites in their environment. Take a look at our article on how often we need to deworm dogs to learn more.
- We must deworm all the animals that live together in the same home and disinfect their environment. This includes their bed, toys, accessories and anything with which they have come in contact.
- If we are going to travel with our dog, we must obtain information about parasites and diseases that may affect it at the destination in order to establish adequate protection measures.
- Especially during the warm months, we must examine our dog's body and immediately eliminate any parasites we find. This is especially important if we walk through the countryside or areas with tall grasses. Infected ticks take a few hours to transmit the parasite, so if we unhook them beforehand, we will best avoid contagion. Check the video above or read our related article to learn how to remove ticks from dogs.
- We should not handle ticks without protection.
- Any symptom such as those described is a reason for veterinary consultation, even if we have not observed any ticks.
Learn about other types of diseases which can affect dogs with our article on common intestinal parasites in dogs.
This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.
If you want to read similar articles to Rickettsia in Dogs - Symptoms and Treatment, we recommend you visit our Bacterial diseases category.
1. Spernovasilis, N., Markaki, I., Papadakis, M., Mazonakis, N., & Ierodiakonou, D. (2021). Mediterranean Spotted Fever: Current Knowledge and Recent Advances. Tropical medicine and infectious disease, 6(4), 172.
- Levin, M. L., Killmaster, L. F., Zemtsova, G. E., Ritter, J. M., & Langham, G. (2014). Clinical presentation, convalescence, and relapse of rocky mountain spotted fever in dogs experimentally infected via tick bite. PloS one, 9(12), e115105.