First stumbled upon in Queensland, Australia in 1935, Q fever's source was a mystery to the Aussies, so they named the fever "Q" for "query." Further investigation revealed that the rickettsial bacteria called Coxiella burnetii was the culprit, thus this highly contagious disease is clinically known as Coxiellosis and it affects, dogs, cats, and their people, as well as ruminants such as cattle.
Joining the ranks of tickborne illnesses, such as rickettsiosis, Lyme disease, tularemia, and several others, Q fever is transmitted by several species of ticks and may also be contracted by dogs via inhalation or ingestion of infected birthing tissue or fluids. Once inside the body, the C. burnetii organism invades the liver, nervous system, and the urinary tract, where it lives quite happily, often not causing any noticeable signs of disease. However, if left undetected, more severe illness can ensue.
The risks of Q fever for dogs and their people, mode of transmission, and the tick connection.
Q fever is most commonly spread to people when farm animals such as goats, sheep, and cattle have stillborn offspring or give birth to unusual or deformed babies since the highest concentration of the Coxiella organism is found in birthing tissue. Typically, the people who are caring for these animals during the labor process become ill after exposure to the placenta, blood, urine, feces, and milk by inhaling airborne material.
Once a dog is infected with Q fever, humans are at risk for transmission. Consequently, one of the primary concerns of Q fever in dogs is that as a zoonotic disease, it can be passed to humans. Q fever is a particular concern for dog breeders since an infected bitch will produce huge amounts of the bacteria concentrated in the placenta, aborted fetus, or reproductive tissues which can be transmitted to handlers during the delivery of puppies. Also, if left undiagnosed, the disease is potentially fatal to the mother.
Furthermore, due to the bacteria's ability to be airborne and transmissible via inhalation, Q fever is recognized as a viable choice in bioterrorism. Tough to get rid of, coxiella bacteria are resistant to disinfectants, heat, and drying. Once it gets into fur and fiber, the bacteria are viable for a long time and quickly launched into the air. The only thing that kills coxiella is high-heat pasteurization.
Thriving in bird and rodent reservoirs, coxiella bacteria infect ticks, which then become vectors of the disease spreading it to wildlife, farm animals, and dogs and cats through their bites and via the inhalation of tick feces that are shed off the animal's fur and become airborne. Dogs are less at risk for the disease than farm animals, and Q fever is prevalent worldwide, except in New Zealand.
The coxiella organisms are hardy bacteria that survive well in air, soil, and dust for up to six months. Dogs who have access to infected wildlife carcasses or are exposed to sick farm animals in an infected environment are most at risk for the disease.
Symptoms or clinical signs of illness to watch for in Q fever.
Because many dogs don't become noticeably ill with Q fever, symptoms of the disease may be asymptomatic or non-existent, or vague or non-specific, which makes Q fever difficult to diagnose. But keep in mind, if left undetected, the infection will progress and is a strong risk factor for reproductive problems or death. When dogs do have observable symptoms of illness, they may include any of the following:
- Loss of appetite.
- Abnormal birthing with deformed, ill, or stillborn offspring.
How is Q fever diagnosed in dogs?
If your dog has undergone a difficult or abnormal birthing process resulting in sick or stillborn offspring, seek veterinary advice at once due to the transmissible nature of the disease and the risks it poses for your dog — it can be fatal if left untreated. Unfortunately, there is a lack of knowledge surrounding Q fever, and it often goes undetected with a sad outcome for the dog, and perhaps the human becoming infected.
A definitive diagnosis of Q fever is based on tissue culture of the infected dog or its aborted fetus. Also, serologic tests are used to reveal antigens that match the disease. These special types of blood tests isolate the organism from the blood by using chicken embryos or mouse cell culture. A urinalysis will similarly isolate the pathogen. Routine blood tests are not sufficient in diagnosis since they do not show a coxiella infection.
What is the treatment protocol for Q fever and how long will it take my dog to recover.
Currently, two methods exist for treating Q fever with the antibiotic Tetracycline. One is when symptoms are observable — in this case, it's administered orally, and if tests come back positive for the bacteria, regular dosing is indicated. Tetracycline is also used prophylactically by adding the antibiotic to a pregnant dog's or new canine mom's drinking water — the method typically used for infected farm animals.
The prognosis for your dog is promising if Q fever is caught in time and antibiotics are promptly administered.
Is there any way I can prevent my dog from getting Q fever and tick prevention tips.
Although commercial vaccines have been developed for Q fever for people, as of 2018, none are available for dogs in the United States. To avoid Q fever in dogs, tick prevention goes a long way towards heading it off. As for any other tickborne disease, the first line of defense is always tick prevention medication — affordable, simple to administer, completely effective, and specifically formulated to stop ticks in their tracks — a wise choice for any dog parent.
Reduce the chances your dog will come in contact with ticks at home and in the great outdoors:
- Keep your lawns and foliage trimmed short.
- Remove debris, garbage, and woodpiles.
- Apply a perimeter treatment of tick pesticide to your property, either DIY or hire a professional.
- Trail walks, hiking, and camping are all fun for your dog, but keep him out of the dense brush and actively check him after each outing for ticks.
- If you find ticks on your dog, remove them if you know how, or take him to the vets for removal. Keep in mind that several species of ticks, located almost anywhere, can transmit Q fever.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.