The tick-borne disease Ehrlichiosis was first detected in Australia in the Kimberley region in May 2020, and has since been detected in numerous communities in WA, the NT, and SA. Read more below for answers to some frequently asked questions about the disease.
What is Ehrlichiosis?
Ehrlichiosis (pronounced Err-lick-ee-o-sis) is a tick-borne disease caused by the bacteria Ehrlichia canis. The bacteria lives in blood of infected dogs, and is spread by Brown Dog Ticks.
Ticks are external parasites that feed on the blood of animals (and occasionally other species including humans). There are many types of ticks found in Australia, but Ehrlichia canis is only spread by the Brown Dog Tick (also called Rhipicephalus sanguineus).
Dogs can get Ehrlichiosis when a tick carrying Ehrlichia canis bites them, having sucked blood from a dog infected with Ehrlichia canis.
What are the signs of Ehrlichiosis in dogs?
Ehrlichiosis can have short-term and long-term impacts for dogs. When they are first infected, dogs with ehrlichiosis often get sleepy, don’t want to eat and lose weight. They might have a fever, unusual bruising, or nose bleeds. These signs may last 2-4 weeks. Without treatment, some dogs will die in this initial phase.
Some recovered dogs will develop cloudy eyes approximately 1-2 months after the initial phase. This is a sign of the body’s ongoing immune response to Ehrlichia canis and shows that the body is still fighting an infection. Usually the cloudiness goes away after a few weeks.
Dogs that recover from the initial phase may no longer look sick, but Ehrlichia canis can still be in the blood of these dogs. If these dogs are bitten by ticks, the ticks can continue to spread the disease to other dogs.
Some dogs that recover from the initial infection might eventually develop long-term health problems due to ehrlichiosis. These problems can take months or even years to show up. Dogs with this chronic phase of ehrlichiosis may have problems with their kidneys, bone marrow or with other infections. Sadly, these problems are usually severe and often terminal, even despite veterinary treatment.
Is Ehrlichiosis treatable for dogs?
Dogs with ehrlichiosis can be treated with antibiotics from a vet, but the antibiotics work best if they are given as soon as the dog is first showing signs of the disease (i.e. during the initial phase of the disease). For dogs that have had the infection for a long time, antibiotics and other treatments may not be effective. For dogs in the chronic phase of the disease, your vet might recommend that euthanasia is the kindest option for your dog.
Can people get Ehrlichiosis?
People cannot get ehrlichiosis directly from dogs.
It doesn’t happen very often, but if a tick carrying Ehrlichia canis bites a person, the person might get sick. If you have been bitten by a tick and are feeling ill, make sure you talk to a doctor or medical professional and tell them you were bitten by a tick.
What about dingoes?
Australia has a considerable wild canine population – both dingoes and domesticated wild dogs. Both of these populations are known to interact and overlap with the free-roaming yet owned domestic dog populations in remote communities, and both are expected to be susceptible to ehrlichiosis if they are bitten by ticks carrying the bacteria. Even if effective tick control could be achieved in owned dog populations nationally, wild dogs and dingoes may remain a reservoir of infection of ehrlichiosis in regions where the disease is established. Being a native species with important cultural significance for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the risk of Ehrlichiosis spreading to dingoes is deeply concerning.
How do I prevent my dogs from getting Ehrlichiosis?
The best way to stop ehrlichiosis is to stop ticks from biting your dogs. All dogs should be treated for ticks and preventatives should be used on a regular basis (see below for specific recommendations). It’s important to treat all of your dogs, and make sure you read the instructions on the box to know when you need to give the next dose.
Environmental tick control is also important. It helps to keep grass in backyards cut short and to stop your dogs from roaming in bushy areas. Brown Dog Ticks are very good at establishing in houses and sheltered places, and can build up in big numbers. Houses and yards can be sprayed for ticks by a licensed pest control technician. If you live in community housing, you may be able to contact the housing group or local council for help with tick spraying.
What antiparasitic products are best to prevent Ehrlichiosis?
To prevent the spread of the bacteria Ehrlichia canis, we must prevent the attachment of the Brown Dog tick to the dog. There are many tick-prevention products registered for use in dogs, but, while most will kill ticks, not all kill the ticks fast enough to stop the transmission of the bacteria that makes dogs sick.
Products that both kill and repel ticks (stopping ticks from attaching to dogs in the first place) are the best for preventing spread of Ehrlichia canis. Products which kill ticks following tick attachment and feeding of blood are less effective.
For more information about tick and tick-borne disease prevention, see AMRRIC’s guide to tick prevention for dogs and cats.
For advice on selecting and sourcing appropriate anti-parasitic treatments for community-wide dog health programs, please get in touch with AMRRIC’s animal health experts.
For specific product recommendations appropriate to the geographic risk, age and health status of your own animals, please consult a veterinarian.
There have always been tick-borne diseases in Australia. Why is ehrlichiosis such a concern for remote communities?
Ticks and other parasites that can transmit disease, have long been a challenge for remote communities due to:
- favourable climatic conditions for large tick populations;
- limited and highly inconsistent environmental health resourcing resulting in poor household pest management; and,
- limited access to effective and affordable anti-parasitic treatments for animals.
AMRRIC’s advocacy for improved parasite control via animal and environmental health services is ongoing. While some states within Australia have community-based animal management or environmental health workers who deliver anti-parasitic treatments between veterinary visits, these roles don’t exist in all remote communities and limited resourcing means that the anti-parasitic treatments being delivered, while beneficial for other parasite control, are not usually effective in the prevention of Ehrlichiosis. With limited tick control, ehrlichiosis is able to spread very rapidly.
A number of other tick-borne diseases that affect dogs have existed in Australia for many years. These diseases include babesiosis and anaplasmosis, and cause similar clinical signs to ehrlichiosis. Ehrlichiosis, however, seems to be having a more severe impact than these diseases, with vets who provide remote community services reporting significant deaths anecdotally attributed to ehrlichiosis – up to 30% of dog populations in some communities. This severity might be because, being a new disease for Australia, dogs here have no natural immunity to ehrlichiosis. It might be because many of the dogs with ehrlichiosis also have other diseases (including babesiosis, anaplasmosis and/or parvovirus) and the combination of these diseases overwhelms their immune system. It may also be because the bacterial strain of Ehrlichia canis that is in Australia is a particularly severe strain. More research is needed to understand this disease and its impacts in Australia.
While treatment for dogs with acute ehrlichiosis may be an option in more accessible areas, for dogs and their owners in remote communities, physical and financial access to veterinary services is challenging. Many of the communities where canine ehrlichiosis is being detected are hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres, via unsealed roads, from the nearest vet clinic or animal health supply store. Many communities are cut off by flooding in the wet season – the same period during which peak tick populations occur. The socioeconomics of these communities are such that disadvantage and poverty are sadly very common, and even where community residents may have reasonable geographic access to local veterinary clinics and animal health products, financial barriers often prevent them accessing these products and services. AMRRIC works tirelessly to assist communities to have improved access to veterinary services, but additional funding is always required.
The emotional impact of the ehrlichiosis outbreak on both vets and community residents is palpable - dogs are both valued companions but also often serve important cultural and/or spiritual roles in some remote Indigenous communities. For those dogs that survive the acute infection, AMRRIC and our networks hold grave concerns for the potential of these cases to transition into the chronic phase of the disease resulting in significant animal welfare concerns. In these regions where animal welfare authorities are few and far between, and limited funding results in infrequent veterinary services, the lack of ability to rapidly respond to both acute and chronic cases of canine Ehrlichiosis is deeply concerning.
How is AMRRIC responding to the Ehrlichiosis crisis?
Since the first detections of Ehrlichia canis in May 2020, AMRRIC has recognised the significance of ehrlichiosis for remote communities and dedicated substantial resources in response.
As a peak body with the unique space of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community animal health and management, AMRRIC has advocated and provided advice on how government-led response efforts can cater to the unique context of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and associated resource deficits. We have encouraged a One Health approach, promoting transdisciplinary connections, particularly between animal health, human health and environmental health stakeholders, and have stepped into the role of knowledge broker, assisting the various jurisdictions to identify many of the stakeholders required to be engaged as part of the government-led E canis responses. With the disease continuing to have a devastating impact on dog populations across large regions of Australia, AMRRIC’s advocacy is ongoing, working with our networks to identify and advocate research needs, facilitating workshops on animal health impacts and One Health risks, commissioning expert literature reviews and formulating contextually appropriate tick prevention advice.
Recognising the need for culturally and contextually appropriate educational resources to raise awareness of ehrlichiosis and its prevention, throughout 2020 AMRRIC worked collaboratively with a number of government stakeholders to produce a variety of educational resources targeting remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, including an animation, posters and school lessons plans. These resource have been shared widely, including the animation on the Australian Government’s Outbreak website. AMRRIC staff have also contributed to a number of media articles, raising awareness of the disease and its impacts.
AMRRIC is pleased to be working with pharmaceutical companies and animal health retailers, collaborating on a project to try to ensure that all remote community stores are stocking effective anti-parasitic treatments at affordable prices, and that through targeted education programs, residents are aware of these products and their benefits. With hundreds of remote communities nationally, this is no small task!
AMRRIC is actively fundraising to put preventative anti-parasitic treatments in the hands of rural and remote communities who need it the most. We are extremely grateful to our supporters, who have provided generous donations to support this initiative. If you would like to support this work please donate here.