INFECTIOUS DISEASES AND DISEASE-SPREADING PARASITES
By Robert A. Gruda, D.V.M.
It's important to remember that the area we live in harbors various agents that can harm our pets and us as well. This discussion will list some of the more important diseases and their symptoms.
Plague is a historical bacterial disease that most people have heard about. We are especially aware of this disease because New Mexico has a high concentration of the bacteria in our rodent population. The bacteria can be found in prairie dogs, rabbits, squirrels, bobcats, and coyotes. Cats are at a special risk for exposure because they, of course, love to hunt and consume various rodents. The infection can be very severe and fatal in cats; not to mention that once infected, the cat can spread the disease to its owner and anyone else who comes into contact with it. Fleas are usually involved in the transmission of the bacteria. The common symptoms in cats are fever, anorexia, swollen lymph glands, abscesses, and weakness. Obviously, if you have an outdoor cat that is not feeling well, be cautious and seek veterinarian attention.
Tularemia is another bacterial infection found mainly in cats and sometimes dogs. The disease is spread through contact with rabbits, hence the name Rabbit Fever. It can also be spread through the bites of fleas and other parasites. Like Plague, the bacteria can be spread to the owner of the infected pet. The symptoms are indistinguishable from Plague but usually less severe, although it can be a fatal disease if not treated early.
Tick infestation will likely be at record levels this summer due to the mild winter conditions. Many of you are already experiencing tick problems in your dog, cats, and even horses. The problem with ticks is not necessarily the bite of the tick (although local irritation and swelling can occur and in severe infestations, anemia), but the diseases that ticks can spread. Ticks can harbor many nasty pathogens that can cause illness in your pets --viruses, rickettsiae (infectious agents that are neither a virus or a bacteria), protozoa, helminthes, bacteria, and fungi. Rickettsial organisms are responsible for Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Ehrlichiosis, all of which carry serious disease potential. The ticks can even bite and spread disease to humans. The bottom line is to get ready for a bad tick season and seek veterinary advice to lessen the impact of these parasites.
This internal parasite takes up residence within your dog's (and rarely cats) cardiovascular system, specifically the pulmonary arteries and the right heart chambers. You can imagine that having several long, thin worms within these areas is probably not good. In fact, heartworm infestation usually leads to heart failure and premature death. Heartworms are spread through a mosquito bite. The mosquito picks up the immature heartworm from an infested dog, then bites and transmits the parasite to another dog. It usually has only been a concern in areas where mosquito numbers are large (near the rivers, lakes, agricultural areas), but recently the numbers of infected dogs have gone up in areas where mosquito numbers are small. It is important to discuss your dog's risk with your veterinarian as it is a preventable disease.
Tapeworm infestation does not cause serious disease but can cause anal itching and rubbing in dogs and sometimes cats. The intestinal parasite infects dogs through the consumption of rabbits; in some areas transmission occurs through the bite of a flea. Young children can be at risk for infection. Tapeworms can be easily treated but re-infestation is common.
This is also the time of year when camping and hiking trips are planned. Drinking water from steams, rivers, or creek beds that harbor the protozoan Giardia will lead to a rancid, soft diarrhea. Giardia can infect pets and people so it is a good idea to take enough potable water for our pets and ourselves on our trips into the woods.
Of course, we should always mention that our state is endemic for the Rabies virus. Rabies infection is extremely rare today due to vaccination protocols, but it remains in high concentrations in bats and skunks. Sudden mood changes, imbalance, change in bark tone, and salivation are some of the symptoms. Be sure to report any bats or skunks found on your property to Animal Control.
This fungus can cause serious disease of the lungs, bone, and other sites in the body. It is usually transmitted by inhalation of spores from the soil, hence, hunting dogs or dogs that like to dig and sniff around are at risk. This fungus is found in more southern regions, especially southern Arizona and California. So if traveling through southern New Mexico and Arizona, be careful of where your dogs dig.
As a side note, we live in a rattlesnake environment. Every year we see several snakebites, mainly in dogs and horses. It's important to know that antivenin is usually available at most veterinary hospitals and emergency clinics. Antivenin is very effective in minimizing the harm of snake venom in dogs and people. We also see black widow spider bites that can cause serious soft tissue damage at the bite site. Any potentially venomous bite should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
In closing, it should be emphasized that most of these infectious diseases are uncommon. Most pets that are ill have other, more routine problems. However, when we see unexplained fever or lethargy, it is important to keep these pathogens in mind to achieve proper diagnoses and treatment.
Robert A. Gruda, D.V.M. owns and operates Gruda Veterinary Hospital, a small animal and equine veterinary practice at the Turquoise Trail Business Park on Highway 14 in Santa Fe (505-471-4400).
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