February 29 - Rare Disease Day

February 29 marks Rare Disease Day, which aims to bring attention to some rare diseases in humans, but we thought we'd take a look at some rare diseases in cats and dogs.

A brown and white dog and a tabby cat are snuggled up next to each other

Rare Diseases in Dogs


Other names: Babesia

Why is it rare: Babesiosis is a species of parasite that is transmitted by ticks. It is more common amongst cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and goats. It is less commonly seen in dogs due to the use of tick preventative products. Babesia is also more commonly seen in tropical and subtropical countries.

About the disease: Transmitted via infected ticks, babesiosis typically presents with symptoms of fever (41 degrees C and above), reduced appetite, weight loss, muscle tremors, increased respiration rate, jaundice, constipation, diarrhoea and anaemia. Certain strains of babesiosis also present with lesions, an enlarged spleen, liver and gallbladder.

How can I protect my dog: Protecting your dog against ticks is the first step in protecting them against babesiosis. In some countries such as Brazil, South Africa and Australia, a vaccination has been used successfully but it is not yet approved for use in Canada or the United States.

A Golden Retriever dog smiles for the camera


Other names: Lepto, Leptospira

Why is it rare: Leptospirosis is rare in Australia, however, it is found in the moist and warm regions of Queensland and northeastern New South Wales. Transmission of the bacteria between humans and animals is also rare. Outbreaks of leptospirosis typically occur after flood events.

About the disease: Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that can cause flu-like symptoms and kidney or liver disease. It is spread through soil and water and is more common in areas with higher annual rainfall and warmer climates. Infected dogs can show a variety of symptoms including fever, increased thirst, dehydration, diarrhoea, vomiting, jaundice, loss of appetite, lethargy, shivering and muscle tenderness. Some dogs may exhibit no symptoms at all. In other dogs, it can progress to affect their kidneys and liver and may even result in death.

How can I protect my dog: Do not allow your dog to drink water from rivers, lakes or streams and limit their contact with other species that can carry leptospirosis. It can be treated with antibiotics and there is a good chance of recovery if caught early.

A blue American Staffy with pale blue eyes starts off into the distance


Other names: Brucella suis

Why is it rare: Brucellosis is commonly found in a variety of countries including Argentina, Canada and Malta, but is rare in Australia despite being widespread amongst Queensland’s feral pig population.

About the disease: Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that is found amongst feral pig populations in Queensland and New South Wales. The disease has been transmitted to dogs that have been feral pig-hunting and dogs that have been fed raw feral pig meat. It may also be transmitted between dogs when an infected dog or its body fluids comes into contact with an uninfected dog. It can also be transmitted to people from infected animals which typically occurs when the tissues or body fluids of an infected animal comes into contact with broken skin. Dogs that are infected with brucellosis may not show any obvious signs of infection but may have enlarged testicles or appear to be limping or suffering from back pain. If you suspect your dog has been infected, you should consult your veterinarian. Infected dogs are treated with a long course of antibiotics and desexing (if they are not already desexed). Unfortunately, treatment for brucellosis is not always effective, and a dog that has been successfully treated may relapse at any time.

How can I protect my dog: Protect your dog from Brucellosis by practising safe pig hunting and not allowing dogs to play with or feed on feral pigs or any wild animal carcasses. If a dog is wounded while pig hunting, you should protect yourself by donning protective gear while you administer first aid by gently washing the wound with clean water and then covering with dressings before taking your dog to a veterinarian. After hunting, wash your dog thoroughly before leaving the hunting site. This should be done while you are wearing protective gear and away from other people and animals. Never feed your dog or other domestic animals raw feral pig meat, offal, blood or bones.

A Shih Tzu dog sits on a striped armchair

Rare Diseases in Cats

Feline panleukopenia virus

Other names: Feline enteritis, feline distemper, feline parvovirus, cat plague

Why is it rare: An effective vaccine against feline panleukopenia virus was developed in the late 1960s which practically eliminated the virus until an outbreak occurred in Australian animal shelters in 2014.

About the disease: Feline panleukopenia is a highly contagious virus which has a high mortality rate. The disease spreads quickly amongst cats and kittens in pet shops, feral cat colonies and shelters. Symptoms include lethargy, loss of appetite, a high temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea which often leads to dehydration. The virus is shed in the urine, stool and nasal secretions of infected cats and fleas can also transmit the virus. The virus can survive up to a year in the environment on items like bedding or food dishes which means a cat doesn’t have to come into direct contact with an infected cat to become unwell.

How can I protect my cat: Ensure your cats and kittens are vaccinated according to the schedule recommended by your veterinarian.

A brown tabby cat with bright green eyes and a bright green collar

Feline Cutaneous Asthenia

Other names: FCA, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, feline skin fragility syndrome, dermatosparaxis, collagen dysplasia, primary connective tissue disease, fragile skin syndrome

Why is it rare: Feline cutaneous asthenia is rare as it is an inherited disorder. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can also be found in humans, dogs, horses and mice.

About the disease: Feline cutaneous asthenia is an inherited disorder that affects the structure and density of collagen causing the cat to have loose, stretchy and fragile skin. Cats with feline cutaneous asthenia are at risk of frequent skin tears and injury from even the slightest scratch. Other tissues in the body can also be impacted by the deficiency in collagen including the heart, blood vessels and eyes. The condition affects the Himalayan cat breed more than others and affected cats should not be bred from.

How can I protect my cat: Because feline cutaneous asthenia is an inherited disorder there isn’t much you can do to protect your cat from this syndrome. Cats with this disorder should not be bred from as there is a high likelihood that the genetic mutation will be inherited by the kittens.

A sweet grey tabby looks up to the camera

Taurine-deficiency Dilated Cardiomyopathy

Other names: Taurine-deficiency DCM

Why is it rare: Taurine-deficiency dilated cardiomyopathy has become a rare condition through the addition of taurine to commercial cat food which began in the late 1980s. It is commonly seen in cats that have been fed an inappropriate diet (such as dog food).

About the disease: Taurine is an essential amino acid that is critical for a cat’s vision, and normal digestion and heart muscle function. If the deficiency is noticed in its early stages, it can be reversed through dietary supplementation. However, if left untreated it can lead to blindness, heart failure and death. Dilated cardiomyopathy is a condition where the muscle cells in the heart have become weak meaning the heart is unable to contract properly. Cats with dilated cardiomyopathy struggle to breathe due to the accumulation of fluid in their lungs.

How can I protect my cat: You can protect your cat against taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy by ensuring their diet includes sufficient quantities of taurine. Cats that are fed home-made meals or a vegetarian or vegan diet are especially at risk of a taurine deficiency. You should consult your veterinarian who is the best person to advise on how you can ensure your cat receives adequate taurine in their diet.

A cat and dog are sitting next to one another. The cat is looking at the dog.

The information provided above about these rare diseases is very general. If you suspect your dog or cat has been infected with these diseases, or if you are concerned that your pet might be susceptible to a rare disease, your veterinarian is the best person to provide advice to you on protecting your pet.

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