Tyzzer’s Disease in gerbils

What is Tyzzer’s Disease

Tyzzer’s Disease is a very serious disease primarily of rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils. Although something which has a devastating effect on all five species, it is gerbils which are most seriously affected, with an average 80% mortality rate, compared to an estimated 47% in mice. At this point and before we get too miserable, a small fact; Tyzzer’s disease is named for Ernest Tyzzer, who in 1917 isolated the causative organism, clostridium piliforme, a spore-forming bacillus, in a colony of Japanese waltzing mice.

First signs to watch for

And watch for very carefully too, because Tyzzer’s disease can kill in less than 48 hours. The animal will be hunched and unwell, with unkempt fur and will be lethargic. Sometimes when the main symptom, watery or pasty diarrhoea, appears, it is already too late to save the animal – and ironically, sometimes the diarrhoea (which many people think of as the only symptom) never appears at all as the animal has suffered from catastrophic organ damage and has died. Some authorities can be quoted as saying that the main symptom of Tyzzer’s disease is death and that is not too much of an overstatement.

Why Tyzzer’s Disease is so serious

The problem with this disease is that it can attack in so many ways. Most rodent species have a strain of Tyzzer’s Disease that only they are affected by; that is to say that if a hamster and a rat are in neighbouring cages the rat can have Tyzzer’s Disease and the hamster will not get it. This is not so with gerbils; for them Tyzzer’s Disease is zoonotic, which means it can cross species and so any affected rodent can give it to a gerbil. Most mammals tested can suffer from Tyzzer’s disease but it is not always as serious as it is for rodents and gerbils in particular. Humans tested have shown antibodies to the clostridium strain involved but have shown no symptoms and never do.

Fast and Deadly

The disease process is fast and deadly. The clostridium multiplies in the gut and then spreads to the liver. While it multiplies to produces a deadly toxin which causes internal organs to become necrotic. When this stage is reached it is irreversible. Some gerbils show neurological symptoms or go into heart failure, depending on where the toxin strikes. Should an infected animal recover, the spores of the clostridium are present in its droppings for some time afterwards and these spores can then live outside the body for years. If there has been a case of Tyzzer’s Disease, it is vital to remove and destroy bedding and preferably habitats and equipment as well. If this is not considered possible then they must be sterilised at 80° for at least 30 minutes. Surfaces which are washable can be washed with bleach. Because spores are so light, they can travel, so after all the cleaning, it is never 100% certain that they have all gone. For all of the reasons listed here, that is why Tyzzer’s Disease is so serious.

How is Tyzzer’s Disease treated?

If Tyzzer’s Disease is diagnosed definitely, there may not be much time. Antibiotic therapy can bring some gerbils through the disease, but they remain infectious for at least two weeks and will need careful nursing as well as care to make sure that they do not re-infect themselves. Heat and a carefully balanced therapy of forced liquids can sometimes provide enough support to carry the animal through until the antibiotic takes effect and this is where the 20% survival rate comes in; no gerbil has been reliably documented as coming through Tyzzer’s Disease without intervention. Despite the fact that antibiotic therapy is available, gerbils generally do not tolerate their administration particularly well. Most vets will recommend euthanasia of an affected gerbil with diagnosed Tyzzer’s Disease, to save the suffering of the almost inevitable end.

Is it ever misdiagnosed?

In the first stages, Tyzzer’s could be mistaken for a salmonella or e.coli infection, or vice versa. However, the conclusion of the disease is often very different. It is important though that an animal suffering the kind of symptoms which Tyzzer’s and the bacterial infections above present with should be handled with extreme care with good attention to hygiene, as salmonella and e.coli, unlike the clostridium organism which causes Tyzzer’s, can be passed to humans and in some cases, in the young, the elderly and those with impaired immunity, can be fatal.

Prevention of Tyzzer’s Disease

This disease presents in gerbils of all ages, although it is more common in youngsters. It is a ‘silent’ infection; in that an apparently healthy animal can harbour the disease until it is in a situation where it is stressed or otherwise immune suppressed and then the disease will cease being dormant and will quickly overwhelm the unwitting host. Meanwhile the affected animal will possibly have shed spores into the bedding and environment before showing any symptoms. It can therefore be seen that really there is no definite way of preventing an outbreak of this disease.  

Be Watchful

As in all other communicable disease, the watchword is scrupulous hygiene. If there is any hint of an outbreak it is very ill advised to visit the house or shop if you have your own gerbils and also very unwise for you to visit a gerbil-owning house if your gerbils have suffered from it recently. The spores have a very long lifespan outside the body and may be on clothes or hands. It is not worth the risk to pass on any items which affected gerbils have been in contact with. Tyzzer’s disease is a horrible way to see your gerbil die – if that sounds dramatic, it is; every effort should be taken to make sure that it becomes a rarity.


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