The strange twisted story of canine circovirus

You have probably been hearing a lot about canine circovirus. So have I. You may have heard some conflicting things about this virus. So have I. Because I love you all and I want you to know what I know, I’ve spent the day trying to make sense of the information that’s out there. Here’s what I know so far and why I’m not recommending mass panic at this time.

Part 1: It’s the food

Here’s how the story evolved, as far as I can piece together.

1. In mid-August, P&G pet foods issues a voluntary recall of certain lots of dry food manufactured at an East Coast plant over a 10 day period because of the possibility of Salmonella.

2. Last week, The Pet Spot, a pet kennel in Ohio, learns that several dogs who had been at the facility in the last few weeks had become sickened with a severe hemorrhagic gastroenteritis/ vasculitis type disease. Three of those dogs died.

3. The kennel owner, trying to figure out what was going on, noted that his kennel’s stock food is Iams. He makes a “hey, we may want to look into this” sort of statement which gets digested, churned up in the bowels of social media and local media, and becomes

OMG EUKANUBA IS KILLING DOGS AGAIN (CHAOS/PITCHFORKS)

mob

The only problem is, it wasn’t. By this time, P&G- which coincidentally is headquartered in Ohio- hears this story and of course they would like to know what happened to those dogs. I spoke with Jason Taylor over at P&G, who among many duties has the awesomely fun job of managing pet food recalls when and if they occur, to ask what happened next.

According to Taylor, despite the fact that the kennel owner did not have the lot codes of the food he was using, P&G was able to ascertain the lot numbers based on order history and shipping details, determining that the food being fed at the kennel was not part of the recall, and in fact was not even manufactured at the same factory.

But since they were there anyway with a group of microbiologists and toxicity experts and a small business owner who was under a lot of pressure to figure out what was going on, they figured they would add their resources to the investigation, crawling around with cotton swabs and all that science-y stuff and send it off to see if there was any identifiable pathogen in the environment. There was none. The facility was cleared to re-open.

Still with me?

Part 2: It’s circovirus

4. By now, the state veterinarian, the local veterinary community, and the Ohio State veterinary hospital are involved. People put their heads together. Someone says, “hey, I remember reading about a dog in California that died this April with similar symptoms; he had circovirus, which is weird and unusual because it’s normally a pig disease. We should test for that too.” The news, already paying attention after losing the whole pet food angle, is still interested. Under the tender editorial guidance of a click-happy news site, “we are investigating this possibility” becomes:

OMG A SCARY NEW VIRUS WILL KILL YOUR DOG

because if there’s one thing the spell check challenged online journalism teams at local newspapers like to do, it’s to drive traffic with leads like “It’s a scary new disease, that can kill your dog” then follow up with some man-on-the street interviews with statements such as “It can like, kill your dog, and that’s like bad for them.”

hazmat4

Uh oh.

As anyone who has read any sort of newspaper or watched any news channel in the last decade will attest to, journalism has become less about accurate reporting and more about fast reporting. It’s the nature of the beast these days, but it’s why everything needs to be taken with a grain or bushel of salt because guess what?

According to a UC Davis professor who tested samples from three of the affected dogs, only one tested positive for circovirus. You may not have heard that yet because Ohio can’t test for circovirus; samples got sent to California and despite what CSI tells us, results are not instantaneous. It took this long for the official results to come in, which is about 4 days too slow for a news cycle that is moving on to the next disaster at midnight.

Part 3: It’s…a case in progress

So what do we know about circovirus and dogs, exactly? Not much. What caused these illnesses? Not sure.

  • Correlation does not imply causation. In the above referenced piece, Dr. Pesavento points to an academic article published in April that  talks about the dog in California, then went looking for the presence of circovirus in other dogs. To sum up, it was found in some dogs with diarrhea. It was also found in some healthy dogs. Most of the sick dogs were co-infected with some other pathogen as well. Clear as mud.

So again, what do we know about circovirus in dogs? That it exists. It may or may not cause disease. That is all the scientists are willing to say at the moment. Wordier summary is in the Ohio Department of Agriculture press release.

That is soooo anticlimactic and unsexy and un-newsworthy, and as a person who likes exciting news as much as the next person I wish I had something more earth-shattering to report. But at the end of the day I am also a person that likes TL:DR summaries, so to put it all in one handy image:

circotagion

Part 4: So now we torch the dog park, right?

I in no way want to minimize what happened to those affected dogs, who suffered from a rapid onset, devastating illness. It is entirely possible that circovirus will be identified as the cause, and in that case we can revisit this issue and talk more. I as much as anyone else hope the patient scientists who make this their life’s work will be rewarded for their diligence with a definitive cause. As of now, there is none. We live such stressful lives as it is, I like to wait until I’m forced to panic so I don’t spend my entire life wedged in the corner covered in Saran Wrap. While we wait to determine if this is necessary, here’s what you can do:

1. Remember the number of reported cases stands at ‘miniscule’. If you’re worrying about circovirus while your dog is running around a year late on his parvo booster, I would recommend re-focusing your attention, at least for the time being. That being said:

2. Call the vet immediately if your dog shows any signs of this disease. If your dog has bloody diarrhea, you should be at the vet ASAP anyway; this advice has not changed since before this virus emerged. The affected pets became rapidly, severely ill: rapid treatment was essential to positive outcome.

3. Avoid high risk environments. Consider the fact that all of the reported cases happened in dogs that had recently been to kennels or doggie daycares. High concentration of dogs in one place means higher likelihood of disease spread.  I actually don’t recommend carte blanche avoiding these environments, but if you are really concerned or if your dog has a less than hardy immune system, dogs survive just fine without those facilities.

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  • MelF

    Thanks Dr. V. I feel bad now that I shared a piece that implied circovirus had been found in all of the cases. Ugh. I hate shoddy and fast journalism. I’ll be taking that one down and sharing yours. Thanks as always for doing the handwork.

    • http://www.pawcurious.com Dr. V

      I think all of the news pieces this week implied that. It’s been a confusing week and accurate information is not being shared because it’s not dramatic enough, kwim?

  • JaneK

    Very interesting. And as always, there is general take home message we can apply to people world, too. Thanks for being a voice of reason in a world full of chaos!

  • Meighen Heyburn

    THANK YOU. Being a reader from Northeastern Ohio (actually, Canal Fulton is only 25 minutes from my house), I was hoping you would mention this. There are many around here all up in arms about it and I am continuing with our routine. We still go to the dog park. We still go for walks. Circovirus or not, my 8 month old large breed puppy needs to get his energy out!!

  • Tara Flynn

    Thaaaank you. Our old doggy daycare put a blurb on Facebook about “This new disease called HGE that’s killing dogs,” and it made my head explode a little. This piece had a pretty moderate view: http://www.cleveland.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2013/09/two_ohio_dogs_test_negative_fo.html so I’ve been sharing that when appropriate; now I’ll have to add this one to the list!

    • Theresa

      Funny thing is HGE isn’t new and it isn’t circovirus either. HGE is hemmoragic gastroenteritis and can be a side effect to numerous other illness or occur on its own.

  • Diane Silver

    Great post! Thanks for sharing this.