Ehrlichiosis in dogs

The disease ehrlichiosis has been confirmed in dogs in the north of Western Australia including:

  • Halls Creek
  • Kununurra
  • the Kimberley regions of Broome and Derby, and
  • in the Pilbara regions of South Hedland and Port Hedland.

In June 2020, the disease was also confirmed in dogs in the Northern Territory town of Katherine, and a remote community west of Alice Springs.

Owners of infected dogs in both Western Australia and the Northern Territory have been advised not to move them out of the area.

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Brown dog tick which is widespread in Australia. Photo courtesy of DPIRD, WA

Infected dogs do not directly transmit the disease to other dogs. Transmission only occurs through infected ticks such as the brown dog tick which is widespread in mainland Australia.

Investigations into the origin of the infection in both Western Australia and the Northern Territory are ongoing with no obvious leads at this time. It is possible that the disease has been present in some regions for some time.

Human health

Infected dogs do not transmit ehrlichiosis to people, however, in rare cases, infected ticks may infect people. The Australian Government Department of Health has information on their website about ticks and human health precautions.

Advice for dog owners

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Image courtesy of DPI&R, NT

You can do a number of things to help prevent this disease in your dogs:

  • Have your dog on a tick control program Use tick collars, injections, tablets or spot-on treatments.
  • Where possible, avoid taking your dogs into tick-infested areas.
  • Inspect your dog daily for ticks, especially if they have been in a tick-infested area.
    • Run your fingers through your dog’s coat over their skin and feel for abnormal bumps. Pay particular attention to the head and neck, inside their ears, on their chest, between their toes and around their mouths and gums.
  • If you are travelling with your dogs to Australia’s northern regions, be particularly vigilant about tick-infested environments and congregations of dogs which may be carrying ticks. This includes places where you may stop at, like fuel stations and caravan parks.
  • Contact your nearest vet if your dog is showing any of signs of the disease which include:
    • fever
    • lethargy
    • enlarged lymph nodes
    • loss of appetite
    • discharge from the eyes and nose
    • weight loss
    • anaemia and bleeding disorders such as nosebleeds or bleeding under the skin that looks like small spots, patches or bruising.
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Photo courtesy of Dr John Beadle, All Creatures Veterinary Clinic, Broome

Ehrlichiosis requires veterinary treatment and supportive care, and it can also resemble other conditions with similar signs, including tick-borne diseases such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis which are already present.

You should contact your private vet if you have a dog that is unwell because early treatment provides the best chance for them to recover.

Reporting signs of the disease

Ehrlichiosis is a nationally notifiable disease. This means, if you suspect your dog is showing signs of the disease, you must report it to your local vet or the national Emergency Animal Disease Watch hotline on 1800 675 888.

About ehrlichiosis

The disease ehrlichiosis is caused by a tick-borne bacteria called Ehrlichia canis.

The disease has three phases: an ‘acute’ phase or early signs of disease, a ‘subclinical phase’ where there are no outward signs of disease and a ‘chronic’ or long-term stage of disease.

Visible signs in the chronic form of the disease are similar to those in the acute phase but are more severe.

Ehrlichiosis occurs worldwide, particularly in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

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Photo courtesy of Professor Peter Irwin

Once the disease is in the brown dog tick population it’s very difficult to control, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions.

Government response to ehrlichiosis

The national Consultative Committee on Emergency Animal Diseases (chaired by Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer) continues to meet in response to these detections.

All states and territories have conducted surveillance activities to determine the spread of the disease. To date, all testing on both domestic dogs, feral dogs and ticks has concluded that ehrlichiosis is not established outside of the Northern Territory or the north of Western Australia.

Jurisdictions are currently considering whether the extension of movement conditions beyond Western Australia is required to prevent the spread of the disease into the southern states and ACT.

Most jurisdictions are running awareness campaigns to inform the community about ehrlichiosis and the actions they can take to prevent the disease in their dogs.

Importing dogs into Australia

Animals imported to Australia must meet strict import conditions to prevent exotic pests and diseases arriving.

Dogs must test negative to Ehrlichia canis prior to being imported to Australia.

Generally, dogs must undergo a mandatory 10 day quarantine period when they arrive. While in quarantine they are inspected for ticks and may undergo further testing if ticks or signs of ehrlichiosis are detected. Some dogs (for example, assistance dogs) may come into Australia under special quarantine arrangements.  To find out more about importing dogs, visit the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website.

Exporting dogs out of Australia

This issue is expected to have a minimal impact on the export of dogs from Australia as very few importing countries require Ehrlichia canis country freedom.

You should check the requirements on the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website if you wish to export a dog out of Australia.

More information

Below are links to ehrlichiosis information provided by your state or territory biosecurity authority.