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What is Brucellosis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Brucellosis is an infectious bacterial disease which is caused by Brucella bacteria. It is also zoonotic, meaning that it can be transmitted between humans and animals, with cows, dogs, sheep, and goats all being at risk of infection. Thanks to improved sanitation and sterilization, brucellosis is relatively rare in humans, and vaccines are used to prevent it in many farm animals, but cases and outbreaks do crop up now and then.

In order to get this disease, one must be exposed to the bacteria in some way. One of the most common ways to get the disease is through eating contaminated animal products like dairy and meat, but it can also be contracted through breathing the bacteria, or if the bacteria are introduced to an open wound. The symptoms include fever, malaise, and headache, and in animals, newly infected individuals often experience spontaneous abortions.

Brucellosis is sometimes called “Bang's Disease,” after veterinarian Bernhard Bang, who isolated the responsible bacterium in 1897. It is also referred to as ungulate fever, Gibraltar fever, Malta fever, and rock fever. Because the symptoms are fairly generic and hard to pin down, sometimes it takes a while for a correct diagnosis to be reached, especially in areas where the disease is not common. As a result, it is important to disclose information about eating and traveling habits when going to the doctor for general malaise, as these can help narrow down the cause of the problem.

Brucellosis is very difficult to treat, because the bacteria are quite stubborn. A variety of antibiotics may be used in a course of treatment, with periodic tests to see if the bacteria are still present. The mortality rate from the condition is actually relatively low; most people who die from the infection do so because the bacteria infect the valves of the heart. However, because the condition is unpleasant and inconvenient, seeking treatment is a good idea.

In animals like cattle, brucellosis can be prevented with the use of vaccines. This has brought the overall infection rate down, as animals can't pass the infection on if they don't have it. The use of pasteurization to treat dairy products has also helped to reduce the risk, as have guidelines on cooking meat which stress safe cooking temperatures. However, the disease is endemic in some parts of the Mediterranean and the developing world, which is a good thing to keep in mind when traveling.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon989233 — On Feb 25, 2015

The cure for this disease (largely accepted as a preventable disease with better sanitation) can cause additional unpleasant symptoms for the patient while enduring the side-effects of antibiotics, specifically trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, a sulfa based medication.

Patients in oxygen-poor, toxic air, or high altitude environments can encounter prolonged recovery times and enhance the risk of complications. Eating other forms of uncooked foods, such as sushi, should be avoided after recovery to permit immune system and liver function to re-establish optimum resistance and avoid post-recovery infection requiring additional dependence on antibiotics.

Patients with a history of previous antibiotic treatments less than six months before this infection should be interviewed for unsanitary diets and health habits and be given counseling to find healthier cooking and eating styles and also discontinue co-habitation with animals if present.

By strawCake — On Sep 13, 2011

@indemnifyme - You could still get it from eating meat though. But I still don't think you need to worry-as the article said, brucellosis isn't very common.

However, I have a friend who lives at her parents farm with her dogs. I think I'm going to be sure and ask her if the dogs and farm animals have been vaccinated for this. I've never heard of this disease before, so it stands to reason other people may not have either!

By indemnifyme — On Sep 12, 2011

I'm glad this disease isn't normally life threatening, but it still sounds like it would be better to avoid it. I had mono when I was younger, and fatigue is one of the symptoms of that too. It can really affect your life, let me tell you!

Although, from reading this article, it sounds like most people aren't at risk for brucellosis. I don't have any dogs, cows, sheep, or goats, so I guess I probably shouldn't worry too much.

By shell4life — On Sep 12, 2011

@Mor - I also heard that dogs can pass on this disease through their urine. This worries me, because I have four dogs, and I have seen them licking each other’s urine off of the grass before.

I am surrounded on three sides of my house by my neighbor’s cow pasture. I only hope that he vaccinates his animals, because my dogs go out there all the time and eat the manure.

I have read that there is no vaccine to prevent brucellosis in dogs. If they develop it, they may never show signs of having it if they have been spayed or neutered, which I guess is a good thing, because they could be considered a danger to the environment if they were proven to be infected.

By seag47 — On Sep 11, 2011

My brother drank milk straight from the cow on a dare. His friends worked on a farm, and being a teen subject to peer pressure, he caved.

He wound up with brucellosis. He said he felt like he had the flu. He felt weak and sore all over, and he had fever. He woke up sweating profusely, and he got headaches, which he never gets.

When he visited his doctor, he told her about drinking the unpasteurized cow milk. She said that this made it very easy to diagnose him. She gave him a combination of antibiotics and told him to take them for six weeks so that the infection would not return once it had been eliminated. It took him about a month to start feeling better.

By Mor — On Sep 11, 2011

I had to research an article once on brucellosis in dogs. Unfortunately, one of the brucellosis symptoms in dogs is that it causes them to abort their puppies, which can be quite tragic.

The strange thing is, it is actually a sexually transmitted disease in dogs. It can also be picked up through blood, like with humans.

I guess I just never realized that animals could have sexually transmitted diseases as well. I don't think dogs have very many though, and brucellosis can easily be prevented from spreading that way by testing your dog and whatever dog he or she is being mated to before you let them do it.

Or better yet, you can spay or neuter your dog and not have to worry about it at all.

By browncoat — On Sep 10, 2011

It can be tempting to eat local foods when you are traveling, and I certainly wouldn't discourage people from doing it.

But you have to do it sensibly. Most cultures have at least a few types of meals which involve cooking meat for a long time and if you have to eat something, you should eat these kinds of meals to avoid brucellosis and anything else which might be lurking in there.

As long as the food is thoroughly cooked and delivered piping hot to your plate, you should be all right. Of course, you have to watch the water as well, and the fruit and pretty much everything else. But the nastiest things are in meat, so watch that above all else.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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