On August 24, two dogs arrived at the Elm Ridge Animal Hospital in Canal-Fulton, OH (northwest of Canton and south of Akron) extremely ill and with an unusual array of symptoms, including very rapid heartbeats, passing blood (without stool), a bloody smell to their breath, and the dogs were in shock. Dr. Melanie Butera, of Elm Ridge, figured out that these dogs had vasculitis (a disease of blood vessels), and their conditions were grave.
The day before, Butera had seen a dog with similar, though not identical, symptoms. And on Aug. 25, another sick dog with correspondingly unusual symptoms was seen by Butera. This dog also had an additional problem -- skin had sloughed off her back. In other words, skin was literally falling off this dog.
Butera was at a loss, treating these dogs as best she could, while feverishly running any tests which might lead to an explanation of the problem -- from canine distemper to the canine parvovirus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (a tick disease unlikely to occur in Ohio), Lyme disease and other maladies. All came back negative.
Meanwhile, Butera sought help from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, where staff suggested she have the lab at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine at Davis check stool samples for the canine circovirus. This largely mysterious virus has only been confirmed in the tissues of deceased dogs 10 times between 2003 to 2013, according Dr. Patricia Pesavento, associate professor of Anatomic Pathology at UC-Davis.
Sounding like an investigator on an episode of "CSI," Erica Hawkins, communications director at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, says, "Circovirus is merely a pathogen of interest."
About a week earlier, in Cincinnati, four dogs were reportedly sickened, and three wound up dying after being boarded at the Pet Spot in Cincinnati. At first, a recalled brand of pet food was implicated but later determined not to be the cause. The case is potentially related only because of the sudden onset of similar symptoms.
Is there a link between the cluster seen by Butera in Canal-Fulton and the dogs apparently sickened at the boarding facility in Cincinnati?
"That certainly is key," concedes Hawkins, "But we don't know. We felt we had an obligation to inform the public while we search for the answers. Many vectors have been discussed, and many hours are being devoted to figuring this out."
Unfortunately, Pesavento didn't receive samples for all the sickened dogs. However, one sample did turn up positive for circovirus. This dog died..
"It's scary because we don't know a lot about it," says Pesavento. "We know it's a DNA virus, and like many viruses can be carried asymptomatically, and we know it is shed in the stool (and thus could be contagious)."
Though vasculitis has appeared in other dogs previously identified with circovirus, Pesavento says there's nowhere enough proof to suggest any of the other dogs sickened in Ohio had circovirus. Or even that circovirus was the cause of death for the one dog positively identified with the disease.
"It would be easy to jump to conclusions, but this complex virus might even require a co-infection (of another virus) to make a dog as sick as those in Ohio were," she says.
Pesavento explains that although the circovirus appears in other species, including various birds, as well as pigs, the canine circovirus is more than merely a mutation -- it's an all together different virus. Though so little is known, Pesavento says she's confident that canine circovirus is no threat to human health.
Three of the dogs treated by Butera survived. Since Butera's cluster of sick dogs, only one other report was indicated by another Ohio veterinarian of similarly sick dog.
Meanwhile, pet owners from across Ohio, and across the country, have identified their dogs as having similar symptoms, most going back in time many months or even years. Of course, there's no way get stool samples from these pets, which would be required to prove or disprove the presence of canine circovirus.
Pesavento agrees that reports of serious illness would be ongoing if there was an outbreak. Instead, the reports stopped in late August as suddenly as they began.
Meanwhile, what can pet owners in Ohio -- or for that matter, anywhere -- do to prevent canine circovirus?
"Nothing, since we don't know what was responsible," says Butera, who reiterates that whatever affected the dogs at the Ohio boarding facility may prove to be unrelated to what she saw. It does seem that owners who sought immediate care for their sick dogs may have improved the pets' odds of survival.
"Right now, there are more questions than answers," says Hawkins. "Realistically, we may never know all the answers."
Check the website of the Ohio Department of Agricuture (http://www.agri.ohio.gov) for any updates on this issue.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)