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What is Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs?

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) is a tick-borne disease found in dogs across the United States. The condition can cause many symptoms ranging from mild to potentially life-threatening. In this post, our Westport vets describe causes, symptoms and treatments for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in dogs. 

What is Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

This acute, tick-borne disease has been found in dogs across the United States. Cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever are reported most often in southern Atlantic states, western central states, southern New England coastal states and mid-Atlantic areas.

An intracellular parasite called rickettsia rickettsii causes the condition. RMSF is transmitted to dogs via infected brown dog ticks, American dog ticks and Rocky Mountain wood ticks. An unfed tick must be attached to your pooch for more than 10 hours to transmit the disease.

That said, if a tick has already fed, the disease can be transmitted in as little as 10 minutes after attaching.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs, Westport Vets

Signs & Symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs

Anywhere between 2 and 14 days after your dog has been bitten by an infected tick, symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can start to appear.

Signs may vary extremely, and many are also common to other conditions. This is why knowing if and when your dog may have been exposed to infected ticks can help your vet diagnose your pup’s condition.

These are some common signs and symptoms of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever:

  • Lameness
  • Poor appetite
  • Reduced appetite
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Nosebleed
  • Lethargy
  • Swelling in the legs or face
  • Cough
  • Pain in abdomen or joints
  • Vomiting
  • Eye/nose discharge
  • Diarrhea

Up to one-third of dogs with RMSF will experience symptoms associated with central nervous system function, such as balance problems, seizures, spinal pain or lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movements. Around 20 percent may also have tiny hemorrhages in their skin.

RMSF can impact any organ in your dog’s body. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe, or even become life-threatening.

How is Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will examine your dog to look for any of the symptoms listed above. A series of diagnostic tests including basic blood tests, x-rays and urinalysis may be required.

Test results with an abnormal complete blood count (CBC) or white blood cell counts, low numbers of red blood cells and platelets, may point to RMSF as the likely culprit.

More diagnostic tests may detect abnormal liver or kidney values, low protein levels or abnormal calcium levels, or electrolyte abnormalities. These may increase your dog’s likelihood of being diagnosed with the disease.

What will treatment involve?

Antibiotics are the most prescribed treatment for dogs diagnosed with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and most will respond to this treatment within 24 to 48 hours. However, dogs with severe cases of the disease may not respond to treatment at all.

The most common antibiotics used include minocycline, tetracycline and doxycycline. In some cases, your vet may also recommend a blood transfusion for anemia, or other supportive therapies.

What is the prognosis for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

If diagnosed and treated early, the prognosis is generally good and few complications tend to impede recovery. In many cases, a dog will have lifelong immunity after the infection has cleared.

However, more advanced cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever will be at higher risk for complications such as coagulopathies, kidney disease, vasculitis, and neurological diseases. In these cases, the prognosis is less clear as complications may be severe.

How can I prevent my dog from getting Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

Use tick prevention medications and vaccinations year-round to help protect your dog against many tick-borne diseases including Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, canine babesiosis, canine ehrlichiosis, and Lyme disease. Contact your vet to learn more about parasite prevention

Another way to reduce your pup’s risk is to limit your dog’s exposure to ticks and areas where ticks congregate, especially during peak tick months - March through October.

If your dog has been in areas known to have ticks, a close inspection on returning home is warranted, since the sooner a tick is removed after attaching to your dog, the better your chance that this external parasite will not have had the time or opportunity to infect your pet.

Remember to always wear gloves when removing ticks to avoid being infected through open cuts or scratches on your hand. Keep a tick removal tool handy, which can make removing ticks safer and faster for you and your dog - they are inexpensive and can be found at vet’s offices and pet stores.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Is your dog exhibiting signs of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? Contact our veterinary team at Westport Veterinary Associates as soon as possible to book an appointment for testing. Our experienced vets can diagnose many conditions and diseases in dogs and cats.

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