By Dr. Becker
By now you’ve probably heard or read about the possibility that a novel virus is sickening and killing dogs in Ohio, California, and perhaps other areas of the country. Many of the news reports have been fear mongering in nature, which is really unproductive at this early stage of the game.
Here are the known facts to date:
- A number of dogs in the Cincinnati and Akron-Canton areas became sick in late August-early September with bloody diarrhea, severe vomiting, lethargy, weakness, and fluid buildup around the lungs. In some of the dogs, the illness progressed to vasculitis, which is inflammation of the blood vessels and is a very serious complication. Sadly, four of the dogs died.
- Since symptoms in the Ohio dogs were similar to those reported in dogs in California diagnosed with circovirus, samples from some of the infected dogs were sent to the University of California-Davis, which has the ability to test for the virus. Circovirus was not found in all of the samples, so it could not be identified as the definitive cause of illness in the Ohio dogs.
- The California dogs with circovirus developed vasculitis, and in most cases, the virus seemed to be a co-infection with other pathogens.
According to Tony Forshey, State Veterinarian at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, “We’re still trying to piece this together to figure out what could possibly be involved. ...We’re still uncertain of what the primary cause is. Just because we found it doesn’t mean it caused the disease.”
Dr. Patricia Pesavento, associate professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine put it this way: “Circovirus is part of this; we don’t know if it’s the same agent killing all of these animals.”
Dog Circovirus (DogCV)
A circovirus is a small virus that is known to infect pigs and birds. Porcine (pig) circoviruses are very common across the globe. Although they were first recognized over 30 years ago, there is still much we don’t know about them.
Circovirus can also infect birds, causing beak and feather disease in psittacines (such as parrots, parakeets, and cockatiels), infectious anemia in chickens, and often fatal infections in pigeons, canaries and finches.
The circovirus found in dogs is similar to the variety that infects pigs, but it’s not exactly the same virus. DogCV was first reported in June 2012 as part of a genetic screening for new viruses in canines1. Circovirus was present in 2.9 percent of the samples. Then in April of this year, a similar virus was found in a California dog taken to UC-Davis for progressively worsening bloody vomiting and diarrhea2.
PCR tests on dogs with and without symptoms of the disease indicate a prevalence rate of between 2.9 and 11.3 percent. According to the AVMA, these findings suggest that circovirus, either by itself or in combination with other disease-causing bacterial or viral organisms, might contribute to illness and death in dogs. Researchers also found that circovirus was present in the stool of 14 out of 204 healthy dogs, which suggests that the presence of the virus does not mean a dog will become ill.
How dogs become infected is unknown. However, most viruses are spread through contact with an infected animal and/or its vomit or feces, through shared bedding and equipment, or through human transfer from an infected animal to an uninfected animal. Circovirus in pigs is spread through manure and respiratory secretions.
One of a handful of veterinarians in Ohio who has treated dogs with confirmed circovirus is Dr. Melanie Butera of Canal Fulton, outside of Akron. Dr. Butera saw two dogs in the same day with very severe symptoms. According to Butera, “These dogs had been sick such a short period of time with normal blood work. I immediately thought there was no way this was a virus. It worked too quickly for the viral diseases we are used to seeing.”
Sadly, one of the two dogs died. “The big thing was how sick these dogs were in such a short time period,” said Butera. “They had fluid coming out of their gums. They weren’t passing bloody diarrhea, they were passing blood and clear fluid.”
Another dog Butera treated who had similar symptoms is recovering after vasculitis caused the skin on its back to slough off.
Clearly there’s still much to learn about this newly identified virus, including the role it plays in disease.
If You're a Pet Owner
There are many reasons a dog may vomit or have diarrhea, so obviously the presence of these symptoms – even if you’re living in Ohio or California – doesn’t mean your pet is infected with circovirus. Vomiting and diarrhea can be the result of something as simple as a dietary indiscretion (stealing snacks from the garbage or gobbling up a bowl of cat food, for example), to a giardia infection, to parvovirus. Most causes of vomiting and diarrhea in otherwise healthy dogs are not life threatening.
If your dog is showing signs of illness that don’t resolve within a day or two on their own, make an appointment with your veterinarian. If, however, your pet’s symptoms seem to be severe and/or are rapidly worsening, you should get him either to your vet or an emergency animal clinic immediately.
Follow simple, common sense measures like avoiding contact with ill animals (or if your dog is ill, keep her away from other animals until she’s fully recovered). Clean up after your pet. And remember that pets with healthy immune systems are best equipped to fight infections. Simple additions like turmeric, probiotics and immune building medicinal mushrooms can be beneficial during disease outbreaks. Also focus on reducing stress and maintaining a healthy living environment to promote a resilient immune system in your pet.
Lastly, don’t panic. We don’t know yet whether circovirus is the primary culprit in the case of the Ohio dogs, but infectious disease specialists are hard at work on the problem. A rush to judgment could mean we miss other contributing factors like perhaps a tick-borne disease, another type of virus, or circovirus in conjunction with one or more additional pathogens.