Hazardous guinea pigs?

All animals pose some degree of infection risk to people, but the risk varies a lot between animal species. I guess I’ve always considered guinea pigs to be relatively benign….some zoonotic concerns but probably bites being the biggest risk.

I think that’s still true, but a couple recent studies show that there are a few things to think about.

The most recent is a paper coming out in January’s edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases (Gruszynski et al, Streptococcus equi subsp zooepidemicus infections associated with guinea pigs). It describes infections by Strep zoo, a bacterium that’s commonly found in horses, and occasionally in other species like dogs.

The first person was an adult in Virginia that started off with flu-like disease, then deteriorated, developing a serious systemic infection, shock and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating disease). Strep zoo was isolated from the wounds. He spent several months in hospital and a rehab centre, but survived.

The 2nd patient was an elderly man, who was also from Virginia and was related to the first patient. He went to hospital with vague, predominantly flu-like signs, and developed pneumonia, septic shock and multiple organ failure. Strep zoo was isolated from his bloodstream. He was hospitalized for 18 days but survived.

Two infections by the same bug in people that have contact with each other certainly suggests there’s a common source or one infected the other.

…but where do guinea pigs come into this story?

A relative of the 1st patient mentioned that he had recently purchased 4 guinea pigs, and that one had died shortly thereafter. The 2nd patient had cleaned the guinea pig cage a couple days before he became ill. So, it was logical to consider the guinea pigs as a possible source. Unfortunately the response was over-the-top. They euthanized and then tested the guinea pigs. Strep zoo was found in two of the guinea pigs, and the guinea pig and human isolates were indistinguishable. Presumably, the pigs were infected first and passed it to two people through regular contact.

What does this mean, in the grand scheme?

  • Probably nothing major.
  • It’s a reminder that infections (including serious ones) can result from even normal contact with species we don’t often consider to be high risk.
  • It shows the importance of physicians querying pet contact.
  • It highlights the need for good basic infection control and hygiene practices around animals.

It also shows the common but what I’d consider to be excessive response that can occur when people finally do consider an animal source. It’s not clear whether the pigs were euthanized at the owner’s direction or whether public health pushed for it.

Euthanasia is the easy way out, since it removes any need to think about it (euthanizing before even testing them makes no sense at all to me). If the owner wasn’t going to take them back (or, since he was hospitalized, the caretaker wasn’t comfortable keeping them) and they were unwilling to re-home the pigs because of fear of infecting someone else, I can see how that decision would be made. It’s a stressful time when people are sick and with the fear of it happening again would be understandable.


  • This bacterium is a rare cause of disease, and some people (e.g. horse owners) are exposed to it quite regularly.
  • It might only be present in the guinea pigs for a short period of time. We don’t know if they can be longterm carriers, and it’s possible they would get rid of it after a short period of time in a household (vs a stressful breeding colony or pet store environment)
  • Strep zoo-free guinea pigs would still pose some risk.

There’s never a simple answer for situations like this, and the full story be interesting to know.

Are we too clean?

A recent episode of the popular TVO current affairs show "The Agenda with Steve Paikin" explores the topic of “Our Relationship with Cleanliness" - an informative, yet fun look at the topic of germs. Panelists (including yours truly) take a cultural, historical, psychological and sociological look at the microorganisms on us and around us - and how we respond to them (including some points on contact with pets, of course!). Worth watching!


EEE in Ontario 2014

2014 was the worst year ever for Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) in Ontario (though our numbers still pale in comparison to more endemic areas in the southern US, such as Florida). A recent article published in the Animal Health Lab (AHL) Newletter (December 2014) by Dr. Alison Moore from OMAFRA sums things up well:

"Twenty-two horses and 2 emus in the province died or were euthanized due to the disease with potentially as many deaths being suspected by attending veterinarians. Two horses were confirmed infected but survived. Counties in Eastern Ontario suffered the greatest casualties. Diagnosis in 21 horses was by serum IgM ELISA testing and 3 were diagnosed by RT-PCR on brain tissue. The affected horses were diagnosed between the end of July and the end of October. Ages of affected horses ranged from 2-20+ years, with no breed or sex predilection. Most of the infected horses were unvaccinated backyard horses and only a single horse per property was clinically affected. Most horses had an acute onset of disease with death or euthanasia performed within 24-48 hours. Common clinical signs included ataxia progressing to recumbency, with fever noted in some and blindness and head pressing noted in others. In the 2 horses that survived, the clinical signs were mild (ataxia and lethargy). The 2 emus were diagnosed with hemorrhagic enteritis and EEEV confirmed in the intestine and liver by RT-PCR.

The virus causing EEE is transmitted by mosquitoes. In Ontario, the most important species is Culiseta melanura, which feeds on birds. Bridge vectors, mosquitoes that feed on both birds and mammals, then complete the cycle to humans and horses. Outbreaks occur in hardwood, flooded areas with competent avian reservoirs and mammals present. Horses and humans are dead-end hosts as they do not produce sufficient viremia to infect mosquitoes.

So why was 2014 such a devastating year? Some speculate that eastern Ontario was relatively warmer this year than other parts of the province, others say it was due to the amount of spring precipitation. Others implicate the spring migration of wading birds such as herons from Florida. Herons are a preferred host for Culiseta sp. over winter in Florida, a major reservoir state for EEEV. The spring migration of herons and similar birds is thought to disseminate the virus to the northern USA and Canada. OMAFRA and Public Health Ontario will be working together over the winter to determine any associations between ecological and meteorological factors and disease occurrence."

Given the amount of activity we saw with this virus this past summer, vaccination of horses against EEE (particularly in hard-hit areas) will be important come spring to help avoid a repeat of this year's outbreak.

More information about the occurrence of EEE and other equine neurologic diseases in Ontario is available on the OMAFRA website: Equine Neurological Disease Surveillance 2014.

Rabies exposure in a shelter, again

As I mentioned a few days ago, eliminating the risk of rabies in animal shelters is pretty much impossible. Another shelter-associated rabies exposure situation highlights the problems.

A cat at the Washington Area Humane Society was recently diagnosed with rabies, resulting in three people receiving post-exposure prophylaxis (i.e. rabies antibodies and a series of rabies vaccines). What’s quite interesting here is the fact that the cat had been in the shelter since May. So, unless the cat was exposed to rabies in the shelter (possible, but very unlikely), that means the incubation period was at least 6-7 months. That’s not unheard of, but it’s pretty long for a cat. We don’t know exactly how long the incubation period can be, except that it’s long. In humans, cases have been identified a few years after the presumed exposure. This situation shows how the 6 month quarantine that is used after exposure of unvaccinated animals is very reasonable, but still not a guarantee. It also shows how short-term isolation of animals in a shelter after arrival can’t guarantee there will be no rabies exposure (although it’s good for many other reasons).


Rabid dog fostered from a shelter

Yes, that’s an "oops," but it’s also not completely preventable.

A stray dog and her 6 puppies were sent to a foster home recently by a South Boston, VA animal shelter. It’s a common and logical thing to do, to get the puppies into a lower risk environment until they are old enough to be adopted. However, any animal with an unknown history is a risk, and that was a problem here, because the dog started to act abnormally after being fostered. She was subsequently diagnosed with rabies, and seven people (including, not surprisingly, the foster family) had to receive post-exposure prophylaxis.

Here are some comments from the article:

It takes about 10 days for an animal to start showing signs of rabies. Staff at the pound had no clue that the dog had rabies because it only stayed there for two hours.

The first point is incorrect. It can take much longer for an animal to develop signs of rabies. The 10 day window is what is used after an animal has bitten a person, because an animal that is shedding the virus will become ill with rabies within 10 days. However, the incubation time (i.e. the time from when an animal is exposed to the time it develops disease) can be months. So, a 10 day quarantine of new arrivals is good for some things, but doesn’t mean that the dog won’t develop signs of rabies later.

Staff sanitized the area.

This isn't really needed for rabies, because the rabies virus isn’t spread through contact with the general environment. It is certainly a good practice for the shelter overall, though, since there are presumably many other bacteria and viruses lurking in the shelter environment.

When an animal is brought in now, it’s monitored for signs of any disease.

That’s a common (and common sense) measure. However, it only helps with some, but not all, diseases. In this particular case, it may have helped the staff to identify this dog as being rabid before it was sent to a foster home (because it developed signs in less than two day), but it won’t prevent all cases like this from occurring. It’s a tough balance between monitoring for signs of disease and wanting to get the animal out of the shelter ASAP (because of shelter space issues, and to reduce the chance of the animal being exposed to something in the shelter, etc.). There’s no perfect approach.

“People need to get their dogs and cats vaccinated. You’re playing Russian Roulette when you turn the cat out at night and it doesn’t have the vaccine,” said Dan Richardson, the Environmental Health Manager for Southern Virginia.

Amen to that.

OAHN Podcast on Rabies for Ontario Veterinarians

The new Ontario Animal Health Network, developed as part of the OMAFRA-UofG partnership under the Disease Surveillance Plan (DSP), has produced a number of podcasts on important topics for veterinarians.  These podcasts are great for people on-the-go, as they can be downloaded and played anywhere on a portable device/phone, and they include discussions with experts from the Ontario Veterinary College, Animal Health Laboratory, OMAFRA and others.

The latest posting is a podcast on what Ontario veterinarians need to know about rabies.  This has been a hot topic since April 2014, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) dramatically changed their long-time role in the national rabies response program.  There are two versions, including a full version and a slightly shorter version for small animal veterinarians (which simply leaves out some of the details for large animal cases).  Although the target audience is veterinarians, technicians and other veterinary staff may also find the information useful.

For more information about the Ontario Animal Health Network, visit the DSP homepage.  More information on rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources - Pets page, and in our archives.


Reptile-associated salmonellosis in Minnesota

A recent paper in Zoonoses and Public Health (Whitten et al, 2014) describes reptile-associated salmonellosis cases in Minnesota between 1996-2011. Like similar reports, the data underestimate the problem because it’s thought that for every documented case, approximately 30 cases go undiagnosed. Regardless, there are some useful findings.

Twelve to 30 cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis were identified in the state each year. That represented  about 3.5% of all sporadic (non-outbreak-associated) cases.

  • This is lower than is often reported, but Minnesota is also known to have one of the lowest pet ownership rates among states, which might account for this discrepancy, at least in part.

Kids bore the brunt of disease (as is normal), with the median age of victims being 11 years. 17% were less than one year of age, 31% were less than five years of age, and 67% were under 20.

  • The very young kids presumably had little or no direct contact with reptiles. This highlights the fact that living in the house with a reptile is a risk factor, even if there’s no direct contact. That’s why reptiles shouldn’t be in the house if there are high risk people present (i.e. kids less than five years of age, elderly individuals, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals). Just trying to keep the high risk people from having contact with the reptile isn’t enough.

23% of cases had to be hospitalized. Fifteen (5%) had invasive infections, where Salmonella made it out of the intestinal tract and into the rest of the body.

  • These types of infection are a major concern, and the report included one case where the bacterium was found in the cerebrospinal fluid (indicating the person presumably had Salmonella meningitis).

Fortunately, none died.

Over half of the people who got sick and who were asked (i.e. not including the young kids) reported knowing that reptiles can be sources of Salmonella.

Almost half reported exposure to a lizard, with 20% reporting snake contact, 19% reporting turtle contact and some reporting contact with more than one type of reptile.

A quarter of those who reported turtle contact and indicated the size of the turtle said the turtle was less than four inches in length.

  • That’s relevant because it’s illegal to sell turtles that small in the US.  The rule was put in place due to the increased risk of kids handling small turtles and getting exposed to Salmonella. The finding isn't surprising, though, since this law is widely ignored.

Some people consented to having their reptile tested. 86% of the tested reptiles were shedding Salmonella at the time the follow-up was performed. 96% of those were the same strain that caused disease in the person.

Overall, not a lot has changed, which is concerning. There’s a risk of disease with any pet contact, but reptiles are undeniably high risk. We’ll never completely eliminate the problem, but logical pet ownership and animal management are needed to reduce the risk. A good start is getting young kids away from reptiles. Reptiles can make great pets… but not for young kids, and not without some risk.

US dog importation and rabies vaccination

I’ve written a lot lately about importation of pets and associated infectious disease issues. A recent paper in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health (Sinclair et al, Dogs entering the United States from rabies-endemic countries, 2011-2012) provides some interesting data on this topic.

Dogs entering the US from countries where rabies is present must be vaccinated against this disease. If they are not vaccinated, the importer must sign an agreement that says the dog will be confined until it is fully vaccinated, i.e. 30 days after it receives its first vaccine. Dogs have to be at least 3 months old to be vaccinated, so any dog under that age must be confined until it is 3 months old, vaccinated, and then confined for an additional 30 days post-vaccine.

The study focused on dogs that had to be confined due to lack of rabies vaccination on entry to the US.

  • Over a 1 yr period, 2746 dogs were confined. That's a pretty impressive number of imported dogs considering this only accounts for unvaccinated dogs from countries where rabies is present.
  • Dogs originated from 81 different countries. Canada (21%), Mexico (13%) and Europe (30%) were the most common sources. Dogs from Mexico would be the greatest concern of these because of the presence of canine rabies in that country. Europe is variable risk, with rabies in wildlife and dogs imported from higher risk regions. It’s not clear to me whether some of these "European" dogs might have actually originated elsewhere and been funneled through Europe, which would make them higher risk as well.
  • 11.4% of the dogs came from South America, 8.5% from Asia and 1.2% from Africa. These are all higher risk regions.
  • Most (67%) were puppies less than 3 months of age (so too young to have been vaccinated.)
  • The nature of the movement of the dogs (e.g. how they arrived, where they arrived, from where they came) in comparison to human travel patterns led the authors to conclude that most were "entering the United States for increasing the dog supply", as opposed to people traveling with their own pets. 

One of their other conclusions was “Dogs unimmunized against rabies and coming from rabies- endemic countries (i.e. DPCAs) continue to be imported into the United States in considerable numbers. These DPCAs pose a demonstrated risk for re-introduction of canine rabies virus variant and may also pose risks for entry of other animal and zoonotic diseases.

If over 2700 unvaccinated dogs were brought into the country, how many dogs were brought in in total? How many of the "vaccinated" dogs were really vaccinated? (Since scrutiny is limited and faking a vaccine certificate doesn’t exactly take a lot of effort.) What other pathogens might those thousands of imported dogs been carrying? Finally, why import those dogs in the first place? There’s hardly a shortage of dogs looking for homes in the US...


Merlin had "Ebola" today

No, not really. Just for the sake of training.

The ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa, along with a few "escapes" of the virus into other regions, has brought scrutiny on the potential role of animals (beyond the wildlife reservoirs) in Ebola virus transmission. Concerns have led to development of contingency practices in some regions for handling potentially exposed animals (just in case).

Today, we ran a trial retrieval of an Ebola-exposed dog (played by Merlin) from a household to evaluate and practice our retrieval, transportation and quarantine protocols. Things like this are typically more complex than they seem at first glance, which is one reason to do a dry-run, despite having spent a lot of time developing the protocols and talking through the entire procedure.

How did it go? Pretty well, overall. Merlin’s a pretty good practice-patient since he’s easy to handle. However, the trial run got us thinking about a few things we hadn't considered, helped identify some little points to improve, and gave us good practice with donning and doffing (i.e. putting on and taking off) personal protective equipment (PPE, one of the most complex and easy-to-screw-up aspects of high-risk patient management).

What are the odds we’ll ever do this for real? Very low. However, it we ever have to, we’ll be very glad we tried it in advance.

With regard to what we’re doing for animals (like this training exercise) and the broader Ebola-management training in human healthcare, one question I've been asked a lot is "Isn’t this a complete waste of time and effort?"  It’s very unlikely that the overwhelming majority of healthcare centres in Ontario will encounter a case or Ebola, just like it’s very unlikely we’ll have to manage a potentially exposed pet. However, the time spent isn’t a waste. While Ebola may not make it here, we will continue to encounter emerging diseases. All this training, along with the communication networks and similar behind-the-scenes work that’s going on will better equip us for the next infectious disease challenge. We may not know what’s coming, but the main aspects of response to a lot of infectious diseases are the same.

How’d Merlin do? He didn’t really appreciate waiting around in the crate outside in the cold while we were donning and doffing PPE, and getting ourselves sorted out, but lots of treats were involved so he didn’t seem to mind too much.

Photos: A, B Loading Merlin into a crate and covering it for transport; C Merlin (in his crate) in the back of the transport truck; D Two response team members in full PPE at the quarantine site.


Tags: ,

Canadian human antimicrobial use report, 2012/2013

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has released the 2012/2013 Human Antimicrobial Drug Use Report.

Why write about this on a site dedicated to zoonotic diseases and diseases of animals? For a few different reasons, actually. One is that we have to realize that antibiotics (and bacteria) don’t care if drugs are used on animals or people, just that they are used. Antimicrobial use in any species can select for resistance, and some of those resistant bugs like to move between species. Therefore, antibiotic use in animals can lead to problems in humans, and (while often ignored), antibiotic use in humans can lead to problems in animals.

The PHAC report is a big document (with lots of pretty graphs) and I can’t do it justice in a couple of paragraphs, so if you’re interested in this area, take a look at it yourself via the link above. Here are some highlights from the executive summary:

  • In 2013, office-based physicians saw patients for more than 293 million diagnoses, resulting in 23.8 million antimicrobial recommendations (8% of all diagnoses).
  • A total of 22.8 million antimicrobial prescriptions were dispensed through pharmacies representing 202,000 kilograms of active ingredient.
  • Pneumonia and acute sinusitis had the highest percentage of all diagnoses resulting with an antimicrobial recommendation (85% and 84%, respectively).
  • Children between the ages of 3 and 9 years had the highest percentage of diagnoses with an antimicrobial recommendation, consisting mostly of penicillins or macrolides.
  • Overall levels of prescriptions and costs associated with antimicrobials dispensed through community pharmacies have decreased consistently since 2011.
  • Although the most commonly prescribed antimicrobials for 2013 were amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin and azithromycin, prescription rates for nitrofurantoin, moxifloxacin and azithromycin have shown dramatic changes between 2000 and 2013.
  • Overall prescription rates for oral antimicrobials have not shown dramatic changes between 2010 and 2013 while increases have been seen in the volume of parenteral [injectable] products dispensed through outpatient pharmacies. However, the volume of antimicrobials for parenteral administration remained low relative to the volume of oral products; in 2013 there were more than 260 oral prescriptions dispensed for each parenteral antimicrobial prescription at the national level.  
  • In 2013, antimicrobial use was highest among the youngest (0-5 years) and oldest (65+) age groups with the youngest (0 to 5 years) group having observed the greatest prescription rate decline between 2010 and 2013. However, in 2013, levels of use in children between 0 and 5 years was 30% (230 prescriptions/1,000 inhabitants) more than what was observed in the general population (872 compared to 642 prescriptions/1,000 inhabitant).
  • Regional differences were observed in the diagnoses and antimicrobial recommendation rates, as well as overall levels of use and cost associated with antimicrobial prescriptions. The province of Newfoundland and Labrador displayed the highest levels of use for all measures, with use 30% higher than that reported for the second highest province (Saskatchewan).
  • Looking at specific antimicrobials, Newfoundland and Labrador had the lowest levels of use for vancomycin, while Québec had the highest use for cefadroxil, cefprozil, ertapenem, minocycline, moxifloxacin, penicillin v and vancomycin.
  • The total mass of active ingredient purchased by hospitals was highest in Manitoba and lowest in Québec, while the cost was lowest in Ontario and highest in British Columbia. The higher levels of purchased antimicrobials in Manitoba was due to ceftriaxone purchasing.

So, where are the corresponding use data for animals? Unfortunately, for the most part in Canada, they don’t exist. Tracking of overall antibiotic use in animals is poor and that hampers efforts to improve use and better understand the relationship between use and resistance. Being able to effectively and accurately track antibiotic use (and resistance) in both humans and animals is critical, but lacking.