Before you take your dog on a hike in the woods, make sure you know how to prevent tick-borne diseases like this one.

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Girl walks white short-haired terrier on park path
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Rocky Mountain spotted fever is one of the nasty tick borne diseases that can affect both people and dogs. Luckily this disease is not spread from dogs to people or vice versa, but it is spread through bites from infected ticks. While treatable with the proper antibiotics, if left untreated, it can be fatal.

Despite its name, Rocky Mountain spotted fever is not limited to the Rocky Mountain states. In fact, it is actually more often seen along the East Coast, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest where ticks are common. This disease also gets its name from the rash seen in humans but dogs often do not show any rash, making it a bit harder to "spot" this infection in your pets.

What Causes Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever?

Rocky Mountain spotted fever, also sometimes called tick fever, is caused by a unique bacteria called Rickettsia rickettsii. It is spread via the bites of infected ticks. The most common types of ticks involved in the spread are the American dog tick and the Rocky Mountain wood tick but other species have also been shown to spread this disease.

When a tick carrying the bacteria bites a dog (or person), the organisms are injected into their new and unsuspecting host. Once in their new host, the bacteria replicate in preferred locations around blood vessels.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Symptoms in Dogs

Dogs can be quite ill with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. A fever is common, even going as high as 105 degrees. Other signs of tick fever in dogs can include: 

  • Swollen and painful joints
  • Lameness
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Swelling on the face or lower legs
  • Lack of appetite
  • Depression
  • Acting clumsy or mentally abnormal

Because this bacteria attacks blood vessels you may also see petechiae, which are small, red splotches from bleeding in the skin. These lesions are what gave the disease the name "spotted fever" from the rash on humans.

Diagnosing Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Getting a specific diagnosis for Rocky Mountain spotted fever can be complicated. This is NOT one of the tick borne diseases picked up on the easy screening test run at your veterinary clinic.

The symptoms your dog shows are fairly nonspecific and fit many of the tick borne illnesses. Pinpointing this exact disease via blood work means sending blood samples out for testing. More often, based on a history of tick exposure and a negative screen for the other tick borne diseases, your veterinarian will start treatment. With my own dogs, I would start antibiotics while waiting for any blood work to come back.

Treatment for Tick Fever in Dogs

Luckily Rocky Mountain spotted fever, along with the other primary tick borne disease in dogs like lyme disease, responds to the same antibiotic called doxycycline. Tetracycline can also be used but doxycycline is currently the preferred medication. Your dog will need to take every dose faithfully for 10 to 21 days as instructed by your veterinarian.

Very ill dogs may require hospitalization for fluids, intravenous antibiotics (instead of oral), and in serious cases, treatment to counteract the bleeding side effects from the blood vessel damage.

Preventing Future Tick Borne Diseases

As is so often the case, this is one of those diseases that is better to prevent than to get to the point where treatment is needed. Start by trying to keep ticks off your dog. There are a number of effective tick preventative options ranging from topicals to oral medications. It is recommended to use these products year-round as ticks can be active all year, though the most active tick season is April through September. My own dogs have even gotten ticks in February in the snow!

Ticks prefer wooded areas, areas with tall grass and brush, and piles of brush or leaves. Whenever you will be in areas like these, be sure to check your dog carefully after your walk or hike.

A flea comb will pick up most ticks. You can also use a blow dryer on the cool setting to search through the coat of a long haired dog. If you find a tick on your dog, it should be removed carefully! You can also become infected with tick fever if you have skin scrapes and come in contact with the infected blood from a tick, so wearing gloves is a smart idea. If you live where you routinely encounter ticks, it is worthwhile to put a tick remover utensil such as a Tick Key or on your keyring and carry it with you at all times.