Brucellosis can be a pretty nasty disease. Most people with brucellosis are infected through ingestion of contaminated food or contact with infected farm animals. Brucella abortus, B. melitensis and B. suis are the most common bacterial species involved. However, there is also another Brucella species, B. canis, which (as the name implies) is associated with dogs. Human infections with B. canis are much less commonly diagnosed than those caused by other Brucella species, but it is possible that this infection actually occurs more often than we realize.

Brucellosis can cause a wide range of problems, but most are rather non-specific such as fever, headache, body aches, sweating and back pain. Recurrent, undulating fever is a common sign and can persist for long periods of time. Disease caused by B. canis is similar to that caused by other Brucella species, but one reason this disease may be underdiagnosed is that screening tests for brucellosis do not cross-react with B. canis. Therefore, a physician might suspect brucellosis, but if the initial test (an antibody test) is negative, the physician is likely to move on to investigate other possibile diagnoses. Specific B. canis blood tests or culture of B. canis from blood or infected sites are required for diagnosis. Overall, it’s probably still a very rare disease, but one that certain people should be aware of.

Many dogs that are infected with B. canis have no detectable signs of infection. The bacterium can circulate through the body continually or intermittently, and spread from the gentials (where it likes to reside) for years. Some infected dogs show signs of illness. Reproductive problems, including late-term abortion (miscarriage) and decreased fertility are major problems. Fever, lymph node swelling, diskospondylitis (infection in the spine) and other problems can also develop.

The risk of human exposure is highest in people in close contact with breeding animals, particularly people in contact with dogs that miscarry during pregnancy or kennels with reproductive problems. Most reported human infections involve people in close contact with dogs that miscarry. The risk to owners of household pets (especially neutered pets) is presumably very low.

  • People who have been exposed to dogs that miscarry and who subsequently develop signs like fever and aches should make sure their physician considers B. canis infection.
  • HIgh risk people (very young, elderly, immunocompromised, or pregnant women) should avoid contact with dogs that have miscarried, or dogs from kennels with reproductive problems or known B. canis infection.
  • Care should be taken when handling dogs that have miscarried or are in the process of doing so. Gloves should be worn when handling the dog, aborted fetuses and any potentially contaminated items. Uterine (birth) fluids can have very high levels of B. canis.
  • Hands should be washed regularly and after removal of gloves.
  • If abortion or reproductive problems are identified in a kennel, testing for B. canis should be performed. If present, an eradication program should be started.

More information on brucellosis in dogs can be found in the Worms & Germs archives.