Deworming wild and feral animals

I had a question the other day about roundworms in feral cats. Specifically, how do you deworm a group of cats that you don’t handle and may not be able to catch? There are a few possible approaches, from trapping and treating (oral or topical) to trying to get a dewormer into them via food. Neither is a great option in many situations, because you can't usually catch all the animals (and feral cats aren’t always the nicest to handle...), or they might not get the proper dose of drug if its given in food.

Baits are a convenient way to treat wild and feral animals, since they are easy to administer and can work quite well. Rabies vaccine baiting has been highly effective in wildlife, and a similar approach could be used for parasite control.

A recent study in Emerging Infectious Diseases (Page et al. 2014) shows the potential usefulness of dewormer baiting for control of the raccoon roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, in urban raccoons. The researchers made dewormer baits similar to those used for rabies vaccine, with marshmallow flavoring (don’t ask me why, but raccoons love marshmallows). They mixed a dewormer, pyrantel pamoate, with marshmallow crème, and sealed it in a hollow fishmeal polymer bait container. They then distributed baits in the vicinity of raccoon latrines in suburban Chicago and also tracked a set of untreated latrines. Fecal samples were collected from the environment before and after one year of monthly baiting.

Pre-treatment, B. procyonis was identified in 13% of samples, equally distributed between sites they subsequently baited and sites they did not bait (to act as controls).

After the one year baiting period, B. procyonis eggs were found in 21% of samples from the untreated control sites but only 3% of the treated sites.  That's a pretty dramatic (and statistically significant) difference.

This shows the potential impact of a relatively easy and cost-effective method to deworm raccoons, to reduce contamination of the environment and subsequent human exposure. It couldn’t be a one-shot deal, though. You’d never eradicate the parasite and raccoons will continue to be exposed, even if levels in latrines decrease. So, ongoing baiting would be needed to control the parasite and keep contamination down. That involves more effort and cost, but could be reasonable in high risk areas, such as parks with lots of raccoons and lots of human and pet traffic, or in other areas where elimination of latrines is not practical but there is a reasonable risk of human or domestic animal exposure.

It also raises questions about whether this might be an effective approach for feral cat colonies... stay tuned.

2013 US rabies recap

It’s that time of year. No, not for snow (although it is snowing here at the moment). It’s time for the annual US rabies surveillance report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Dyer et al. Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2013).

The highlights…

  • Over 5800 rabid animals were identified in the US. 92% of those were wildlife. That’s going to be a profound underestimation since most rabid wildlife aren’t caught and tested, but it shows that rabies is still alive and well in the US.
  • Rabies was most commonly diagnosed in raccoons, followed by bats, skunks and foxes.
  • Among domestic animals, there were 247 cats, 89 dogs, 86 cattle, 31 horses/mules, 9 sheep/goats, 3 pigs, 2 llamas, and a partridge in a pear tree. (Obviously the last one’s my lame attempt at early winter humour. Birds aren’t a rabies concern).
  • Other species affected included mongooses (38; as always, just from Puerto Rico), groundhogs (37), bobcats (16), coyotes (5), deer (5), otters (3), opossums (2), wolves (2), marmots (2), a rabbit and a fisher. Most of those are fairly typical, both in terms of the species affected and the numbers. 
  • Pennsylvania had the most rabid cats, while Texas won for most rabid dogs.
  • Vaccination history was not usually available for rabid dogs and cats. None of the rabid cats had been properly vaccinated against rabies. One of the rabid dogs had been vaccinated, a 10-month-old dog that developed rabies 7 months after receiving its first dose. This one’s a bit concerning, though. By being vaccinated at 3 months of age, it would have been considered "up-to-date" on rabies vaccination and this would therefore be a vaccine failure. No vaccine is 100% effective (although rabies vaccine is considered very effective as vaccines go) and the dog having only received only one dose because of its age was probably a key factor. 
  • The dominant rabies virus variants had a typical geographic distribution (see map above).

Three people were diagnosed with rabies during the year.

  • The first was a person who died of raccoon rabies. There was no history of animal exposure, but he had received a kidney transplant 17 months earlier. The donor had been diagnosed with severe gastroenteritis, but also had some neurological abnormalities and when banked samples from the donor were tested, rabies virus was found. Three other organ recipients were then given post-exposure prophylaxis.
  • The second person was a man from Guatemala who was detained trying to enter the US. While in custody, he developed neurological disease and died. Central American canine rabies variant was identified.
  • I assume the third reported case was the organ donor from the first case, since the case was diagnosed in 2013 (even though the person died in a different year).

As per usual, there’s a little information about Canada and Mexico in the paper.

  • 116 rabid animals were identified in Canada, 88% of those being wildlife. There were also 12 cats and dogs (combined) and 2 horses.
  • In Mexico, an important finding was the fact that, for the first time since 1938, no people died of rabies. Eleven rabid dogs were identified. However, care must be taken in comparing data from different countries because of potential differences in testing (if you don’t look too hard, you don’t find).


Skunk + late vaccine + inflexibility = dead dog

A Brockton, MA dog was euthanized after being bitten by a rabid skunk, because of a combination of the skunk's rabies diagnosis, a relatively minor lapse in the dog's vaccinations, and regulatory inflexibility. The ten-year-old Schnauzer cross was bitten in its own yard, and the skunk was subsequently caught, tested and diagnosed as rabid.

Clearly, this needs to be considered rabies exposure. But, what needs to be done?

  • If the dog was up-to-date on its vaccines, it would receive a booster vaccination and be subject to a 45 day observation period (typically at home).
  • If unvaccinated, it would be boosted and quarantined for 6 months, or euthanized.

However, a dog doesn’t suddenly go from protected to unprotected immediately after the 1 year or 3 year vaccination duration passes. One year and 3 years are nice easy dates to remember and vaccines are known to provide that degree of protection because they've been tested at these intervals.  However, since vaccine-induced antibodies aren’t programmed to self-destruct on a specific "best-before-date", there’s a grey area with animals whose vaccination has lapsed by only a short period. Here, the dog was two weeks overdue - immunologically probably almost identical to what its protection status was at the time its vaccination lapsed.

“It is really sad. My heart goes out to the animal’s owner,” Animal Inspector Megan Hanrahan said. “But those two weeks make the animal not covered.”

Yet, it’s not that clear-cut. NASPHV guidelines state “Animals overdue for a booster vaccination should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis based upon severity of exposure, time elapsed since last vaccination, number of previous vaccinations, current health status, and local rabies epidemiology to determine need for euthanasia or immediate revaccination and observation/isolation."

It’s definitely grey, and being bitten by a rabid skunk is concerning, but a ten-year-old dog that was two weeks overdue (and hopefully previously vaccinated many times over its life) certainly deserved some consideration of this grey area. I think a 45-day observation period would be entirely justifiable here.

Regardless, this is a good reminder of why people need to pay close attention to vaccination dates and ensure that their animals are properly covered at all times (and, no, testing antibody titres does not replace the need for vaccination).

Photo credit: (click image for source)

Plague from dog

Plague… it’s a term that typically conjures up images of the devastating "Black Death", the pandemic that killed 75-200 million people in Europe back in the 14th century. Yet, it’s not just a historical disease. Plague is still present in a variety of small mammals in different regions worldwide (see map), including parts of the US, with periodic reports in Canada.

A recent case of plague in a Colorado man has attracted a lot of attention.  The individual developed the pneumonic form of the infection after his dog died of the same disease. It’s suspected that he was infected from a flea that fed on the infected dog, and then bit the man. However, I don’t think you can really rule out the potential for direct transmission of the bacterium, Yersina pestis, from the dog. Fortunately, despite developing pneumonic plague (the form in which the bacterium infects the lungs, and the deadliest form of Y. pestis infection), it seems that he’s recovering.  Plague is treatable with antibiotics, but it is critical that treatment be started as soon as possible or it can be fatal.

Transmission of plague from pets to people isn’t new. However, most often it involves cats that get infected while hunting rodents carrying infected fleas. Cats can develop plague, and then people caring for them (e.g. owners, veterinarians) can acquire the infection.

This case highlights a few important points:

  • Plague is still around. People living in areas where plague is present need to be aware of the risk, even though it's very low.
  • Pets get infected from contact with infected rodents, either directly or from their fleas. Keeping pets away from wildlife (e.g. keeping cats indoors, limiting free-roaming of dogs) can reduce the risk of exposure.
  • Sometimes, knowing the cause of an animal’s illness is very important for human health. Knowing that a pet had plague would greatly speed up consideration of plague in anyone who became sick and had contact with the animal.
  • Flea control can help reduce the risk of many diseases, including plague.

(Click image for source)

More on rabies and roadkill

A reader recently posed a question about the potential risk of rabies virus exposure from running over a rabid animal. I get the "can I get rabies from touching roadkill?" question regularly, but this person had a different concern.

The other day I accidentally plowed right over an already-dead animal in the road. My air conditioning was blasting right on my face at the time. I am sure that something could have splattered under my car. Moreover, there could be a weakness or opening in my AC system that would allow the rabies virus to enter.

We typically shy away from saying "never" with infectious diseases, but this would be as close to a "never" situation as you can get.

For this to be a concern:

  1. the animal would have to be rabid
  2. brain tissue and saliva containing rabies virus would have to be aerosolized
  3. virus particles would have to make it past the air filters...
  4. ...and then come into contact with mucous membranes (e.g. mouth, eyes) or open skin lesions.

That’s just not a realistic concern. Non-contact-associated transmission of rabies is very rare and concerns are mainly limited to labs where large quantities of virus are manipulated, and people entering highly-infected bat caves.

Rabies is not an airborne virus, and beyond direct contact concerns would only relate to aerosol/droplet transmission, something I describe as "splash zone" transmission. Even with poor or absent air filters in the car, droplets aren’t going to make it through the whole ventilation system to the driver's body.

The reader's final question: “Or are you laughing while reading this?

Trust me, I get stranger questions on a daily basis.

Raccoon rabies...what is exposure?

A recent report about a rabid raccoon in New Brunswick highlights a few different issues regarding rabies exposure, and the marked differences in application and interpretation of various guidelines.

The incident occurred in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, where a family came home "to find their 2 dogs excitedly circling around something in the yard. The object of attention was a raccoon, which evidently was moving abnormally slowly and was circling. The raccoon was killed and buried. Afterward, the dogs shared popsicles with the family's 2 young children. It was not known if the dogs had had contact with the raccoon, but if they had been bitten, it is likely that they would have licked any wounds they incurred and so could have been exposed to the raccoon's saliva. The raccoon was dug up and its brain was extracted by the New Brunswick Provincial Veterinary Laboratory and sent to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Rabies Laboratory in Ottawa for testing. Test results were completed on [2 Jun 2014] and variant typing was completed on [3 Jun 2014]."

I’m a little surprised the CFIA tested the raccoon. Often (usually), it’s difficult to get testing done without clear evidence of exposure of either a person or a domestic animal. Here, it doesn’t sound like there was much evidence that the dogs had been exposed. I’m not saying don’t test - I think over-testing is better than under-testing, as long as results are interpreted properly. 

"Post-exposure treatment has been started on the 2 children. Both dogs had been vaccinated previously against rabies, although one dog was overdue for revaccination. Both dogs were given booster vaccinations for rabies and have been put under quarantine. The family also has an indoor-outdoor cat which had never been vaccinated against rabies. The cat was vaccinated and also is being quarantined."

It seems like a big stretch to call this exposure of the kids. If the dog bit the raccoon, it’s very unlikely there would be rabies virus in the dog’s mouth, although it’s possible if the dog and raccoon swapped saliva during the process. However, rabies virus would then have to survive in the dog’s mouth, contaminate the ice cream, survive on the ice cream surface and make its way into the kids through the ice cream. To say that’s unlikely is very much an understatement. Again, I’d rather see erring on the side of caution when it comes to rabies, but unless there’s more to the story, this seems pretty extreme.

Considering the indoor-outdoor cat exposed seems even stranger, since there’s no information reported here that the cat was involved in the raccoon incident at all. Since exposure of an unvaccinated animal means a 6 month strict quarantine, that’s a very drastic measure for a situation like this.

Maybe something’s not being reported, but it seems a bit weird to me.

Some general take home messages: 

  • Stay away from wildlife.
  • Think about rabies when there are encounters with wildlife, especially wild animals that are acting strangely.
  • Vaccinate your pets (even the indoor ones!)

It's also worth noting that this was the first rabies-positive raccoon found in New Brunswick since 2002.

Boo Boo gets pardoned, but so much for stress relief

Let’s put this one in the "smart people doing stupid things" file.

Some well-intentioned people at Washington University in St. Louis thought they'd help relieve stress during exam time by bringing in a petting zoo - that unfortunately included "Boo Boo" the biting bear. As you can likely guess, problems ensued.

18 students sustained skin-breaking bites from Boo Boo.

  • You’d think someone would clue into there being an issue after, say, a few bites. Once it hit a dozen, I would have thought anyone with common sense would get concerned. But 18??? Did they even pull Boo Boo out of the petting zoo by then, or did he just get tired of biting people? (Or did he simply run out of willing victims?)

Local public health officials originally mandated euthanasia and rabies testing.

  • Because Boo Boo is a wild animal species, there are no quarantine provisions after potential rabies exposure. Because of that, standard guidelines are to euthanize the animal for rabies testing. This didn’t go over well (not surprisingly), and they eventually relented. From a practical point, it’s reasonable since Boo Boo’s not likely rabid, he’s just not a good petting zoo critter. However, the decision was probably more PR than science and they’ve gone against standard rabies prevention practices. This is one reason why wild species aren’t supposed to be in petting zoos.

It was reported that "This year, without the university's prior knowledge, the petting zoo included in the experience a 2-month old bear cub,"

  • Easy way to deflect blame but no excuse. The University brought in the animals. They had a duty to know what was happening.

Petting zoos can be fun and entertaining. Bear bites and rabies scares aren’t. A little common sense goes a long way. Unfortunately, common sense isn’t always very common.

Raccoon roundworm reminder

An article by Dr. Ann Britton of British Columbia’s Animal Health Centre (AHC) on the blog site  is another reminder of the perils of raccoon poop. Over a 2 year period, 17 raccoons were submitted to the AHC for necropsy, and 12 (71%) of them were infected with Baylisascaris procyonis, the raccoon roundworm. The number of animals tested was small, and the number of infected raccoons is not surprising given similar results of other studies of raccoons in various areas, but it’s a good reminder that a large percentage of raccoons are infected with this parasite, and can shed massive numbers of eggs per day.

“So what?” you might say.

While human infections are very rare, they’re devastating and typically result in death or severe brain damage.

Some key points:

  • Consider all raccoons infected with roundworms, and all raccoon poop contaminated.
  • “Old” raccoon poop is the bigger concern. The roundworm eggs have to mature in the feces for a few days before they are able to infect people or other animals. However, once they’ve done that, they are very hardy and can survive for long periods of time in the environment.
  • Raccoons tend to poop in the same spot day after day. These raccoon latrines can have massive egg burdens.
  • Care should be taken when handling raccoon feces or when cleaning up a raccoon latrine. More info about cleaning up raccoon latrines can be found in a previous Worms & Germs post on this topic
  • Rarely, dogs can also become infected by the raccoon roundworm. Dogs should be kept away from raccoon latrines because of the potential for infection and (maybe of greater concern) the potential for them to carry Baylisascaris eggs into the house on their haircoat.

Click here for the full article from


From the archives...Why should I vaccinate Fluffy, he's an indoor cat? (aka Why I'm glad I vaccinated Finnegan, my indoor cat)

Over the past few years, I've written a lot of posts on this blog. Hopefully the odd one's been interesting and/or informative, and in the spirit of recycling (not laziness!) I'm going to re-post some that I thought were memorable or of particular interest.

The first one is actually the second post ever on this site (original post date: April 11, 2008).

Picture this. I’m driving home from the airport and get a call from my wife who’s locked in the bedroom with our kids because a bat is flying around the house. It’s not necessarily a big deal, except for the fact I thought I might have seen a bat in the house a couple days earlier, and a bat in a house with access to sleeping people = rabies exposure! [2013 addition: Not all jurisdictions consider this to be exposure now.]

I’ll save you the long but somewhat funny saga, and just say I eventually caught the bat. Our sigh of relief was short-lived, however, because it came back rabies positive. That meant we all needed rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (2 shots for Heather and I who have been vaccinated, but 6 shots for each of the kids). We also have a dog and cat, and they had to be considered exposed as well (the cat almost caught the bat). The cat, Finnegan, is an indoor cat but was vaccinated. The repercussions on the animals were much less than on us. However, if they had not been vaccinated, we would have had a problem.

Protocols for rabies exposure in non-vaccinated animals vary between jurisdictions, but long quarantines are the norm, and euthanasia often is chosen.

The take home message is if you care about yourself, your family and your pets, vaccinate your pets against rabies - even with indoor-only animals. In most places it’s the law. It’s also good sense.

Maybe I should buy a hat

These days, there’s more and more doom-and-gloom information about multidrug-resistant bacteria. They’re in our hospitals, medical tourists, people on the street, our pets, our food, and pretty much anywhere else you can think of. We can now add crow poop to the list too.

It’s almost to be expected, really. We know that birds can carry various resistant bacteria, and the more contact birds have with human environments and food animal environments, the greater the chance these bacteria are going to be transmitted between them (in one direction or another). It's important to remember that resistant bacteria are also present in nature, independent of human activities.

A recent report of a pretty high profile multidrug-resistant bacterium - vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE) - in birds wasn’t all that surprising. The study (Oravcova et al, Environmental Microbiology 2013) reported finding enterococci carrying the vanA resistance gene in 2.5% of 590 crows sampled in multiple US states.   It was quite interesting though, because VRE is (in North America) a human-associated bacterium. It’s a little more muddled in Europe where VRE was an issue in food animals, in part due to former use of a drug related to vancomycin (avoparacin) in some food animal species. Here though, we rarely see VRE in anything species but humans. This raises some interesting questions about where these crows picked up VRE, if they are able to carry the bacterium for long periods of time, and if they can act as a source of human or animal infection.

Does this bother me? No. It’s of academic interest, but not something that’s going to pose a real risk to me. I tend not to walk under trees full of crows with my mouth open, and I’m pretty sure I’d wash my hands if a crow pooped on them. Yes, there’s the chance that I could have unnoticed contact with contaminated crow poop remnants on an outdoor surface, but the odds of it containing viable VRE are pretty low, and there are lots of other things that I’m more likely to pick up in my daily activities. In terms of VRE, I’m presumably more likely to be exposed in other ways than from crows. However, the study is still important in that it shows how widespread antimicrobial resistance is, how complex the issue is and how we need to do more to understand the ecology and epidemiology of various resistant bugs.

There's no need to go exterminating crows, but Johnny Depp may want to consider an alternative style of hat.


2012 US rabies recap

It's that time of year again… time for the US annual rabies surveillance report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Dyer et al 2013).

Some highlights:

  • There were 6162 cases of rabies diagnosed in animals in 2012. (This is a 2.1% increase from 2011, but I don't put much stock into changes like that when the tested cases only represent a minority of the animals with rabies.)
  • The vast majority (92%) of rabid animals were wildlife, with raccoons "winning" at 32% of all animals diagnosed. They were followed by bats (27%), skunks (25%), foxes (5.5%), cats (4.2%), cattle (1.9%) and dogs (1.4%)
  • A variety of other animal species were also diagnosed as rabid, including bison, llamas, bobcats, deer, a cougar, a mink, groundhogs, opossums and beavers. That just shows how any mammal is at risk. I was surprised at the number of rabid groundhogs (42 in 10 states).
  • While dogs accounted for only 1.4% of cases (84 animals), a disproportionate number were found in Puerto Rico (18), with relatively large numbers also in Texas (16), North Carolina (9), Georgia (7) and Oklahoma (7). Presumably this relates to a combination of lower vaccination rates and a higher level of endemic rabies in the wildlife population in these areas. It appears that none of the rabid dogs were properly vaccinated against rabies, although vaccination history was not known for many.
  • Rabid cats were mainly found in areas where raccoon rabies was common. Pennsylvania had the most rabid cats (15.6%). Other commonly affected areas were Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey and Georgia.
  • The distribution of rabies virus types was pretty much as expected. Raccoon rabies virus predominated on the east coast. Skunk rabies covered the central US, overlapping with fox rabies in the southern regions. Fox rabies was also dominant in the Nevada and Arizona area, while skunk rabies predominated in central to northern California. Fox rabies dominated in Alaska and the mongoose rabies virus strain was found in (not surprisingly) Puerto Rico.

Some Canadian data were also reported:

  • There were 142 confirmed rabies cases in animals, 84% of which were wildlife.
  • There were 18 rabid cats and dogs, 4 livestock and one person. The person was infected with rabies while abroad, in Haiti.
  • No rabid raccoons were found - something that has been the case since 2008.

And in Mexico…

  • There were 12 cases of rabies in dogs, and those involved the canine rabies virus variant which is not present in Canada or the US.

Take home messages:

  • Rabies...bad.
  • Rabies... still here (and not going away any time soon).
  • Vaccinate your animals.
  • Stay away from wildlife.

Image: Distribution of major rabies virus variants among mesocarnivore reservoirs in the United States and Puerto Rico, 2008 to 2012. (click for source: Dyer et al. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2013)

Irony...bad luck...rabies-magnet...pick your terminology

The word "ironic” gets used a lot, often incorrectly.

Alanis Morrissette’s hit song “Ironic” is a great example of this since she (ironically?) describes situations that aren’t really ironic, they just suck (i.e. winning the lottery and dying the next day isn’t ironic, it’s just bad luck).

Anyway, irony doesn’t have much to do with the topic at hand, apart from picking on the title of a news report “In ironic twist, dogs of local rabies survivor Jeanna Giese are exposed to bat that tested positive for the disease.” It’s not really ironic, but it’s an interesting story.

If anyone knows about the implications of rabies, it’s Jeanna Giese. She will forever be remembered in the medical world as the first person to be successfully treated after developing rabies. When she was 15, she picked up a (rabid) bat and was bitten. Not knowing any better, the family cleaned the bite wound but did not take her to a doctor. A little over a month later, she developed neurological disease. At that point in time, rabies was still called "invariably fatal," but she was treated with an experimental protocol that involved, among other things, putting her in a coma and treating her with antiviral drugs. Remarkably, she survived. More remarkably, she didn’t just survive, she was able to go back to school, learn to drive and function normally. (As a result of her miraculous recovery, rabies is now termed "almost invariably fatal.")

Jeanna has become an advocate for both animals and rabies awareness, using her personal experience to get her message across. Well, now she has one more personal experience to add to her repertoire.

Recently, she found a bat in the enclosure that houses two of her dogs. The bat was dead and covered in dog bite marks. Presumably in no small part because of her heightened awareness of rabies, she submitted the bat for rabies testing - and it was positive. So, her dogs were considered exposed. “How many people in the entire world can honestly say that a rabid bat has affected their lives twice in nine years?” she asks. Fortunately, her dogs were vaccinated against rabies and therefore they only have a relatively short observation period at home to go through, as opposed to a strict six month quarantine or euthanasia.

Awareness of rabies is the key, whether you’re trying prevent exposure of yourself, your family or pets. It’s also an area that needs improvement.  As Ms. Giese said, "It's not surprising people know little about rabies... I didn't. You can't walk into a counselor's office and just pick up a pamphlet about rabies. I'm teaching kids that it's out there and what to do. Had I known what I know now, I would have made a different decision (about picking up the bat in 2004)."

Ironic? No, but a good story nonetheless.

US Rabies update

ProMed-mail usually posts a monthly recap of rabies cases in the US. The most recent one (like most of them) doesn't have anything too astounding, but it provides some good reminders.

Skunk attacks baby

A five-month-old baby that was outside in a car seat was bitten in the face several times by a skunk. The skunk was killed and tested positive for rabies. This is a high risk situation because it involves a young child and bites to the face. Because of that, the incubation period would potentially be very short so prompt treatment of the baby would be needed (and presumably post-exposure treatment was started right away).

Rabid family dog attacks

Five people were bitten by their pet dog, which was subsequently identified as being rabid. This should be a reminder that rabies exposure is still a concern with pets, that pets should be vaccinated, and that rabies exposure must be considered after any bite.

Fox + bite + electric hedge clippers = ...

A Virginia man was bitten by a fox, and he then killed the fox with hedge clippers (probably not a pretty sight). The bite did not break the skin (although the man did pass out afterward... not sure whether that was from fear of the bite or the aftermath). Anyway, the fox is only being reported as "presumed" rabid. Given the time frame of the encounter and the press release, I would have thought they'd know the rabies status of the animal, if it was tested. In the absence of knowing that the fox was not rabid, they'd have to assume that it was and take appropriate measures. Since the bite didn't break the skin, the bite shouldn't be considered rabies exposure; however, depending on how gory the subsequent fox-clipping was, there might have been exposure to infectious tissues by other means, and post-exposure treatment might have been indicated anyway.

Calf bites, animal health personnel screw up

Rhode Island health officials are trying to track down anyone that might have been exposed to a calf that lived next door to a popular ice cream shop. The calf bit someone and was quarantined. However, it died the next day and in a pretty major screw-up, local animal health officials didn't notify the state until 3 days later. By that time, the calf's body was too decomposed to be tested for rabies. So, it must be assumed that the calf was rabid.

A few take home messages:

  • Rabies is still around... think about it.
  • Vaccinate your pets.
  • Avoid contact with wildlife, and if wildlife is behaving abnormally (e.g. attacking), rabies must considered.
  • Make sure all bites from mammals are reported so that the need (if any) for rabies post-exposure treatment can be determined.
  • Hedge clippers are not the best euthanasia tools.

Why Finnegan's an indoor cat

I grew up with cats, and they were all indoor/outdoor. I never really thought about it since that was just the way things were done. Yet, as much as he’d like to convince us otherwise, our current cat Finnegan is an indoor cat. There are a lot of reasons for this.

One reason for keeping Finnegan in the house is zoonotic disease prevention. I was recently giving a talk about "Pets and immunocompromised owners" at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine forum, and a recurring theme for reducing the risks associated with cats was keeping them inside. (Want to reduce the risk of the cat being exposed to Toxoplasma? Keep it inside. Want to reduce the risk of Salmonella exposure? Keep the cat inside...).

Another important reason is the animal's own health:

  • Cat vs car rarely ends well for the cat, and untold thousands of cats meet their ends on roads every year.
  • Cat vs cat isn’t as bad but can lead to cat bite abscesses and transmission of a few different pathogens such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV).
  • When outside, cats can also be exposed to various insect borne pathogens that can be of concern. This kind of risk varies between regions, with areas such as those where there are ticks carrying Cytauxzoon felis (a parasite normally carried by bobcats) perhaps being the biggest concern.

Wildlife is another concern, in two ways. Just like with cars, cat vs larger critter such as a coyote rarely ends well for the cat. From an ecological standpoint though, greater problems occur from cats killing smaller wildlife. It’s been estimated that free-roaming domestic cats kill billions (yes, Billions) of birds and small mammals every year. I won’t go into all the details here, but there’s a good article on the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre’s website about the impact such avid feline predators can have on local ecology.

Some people would argue that cats are better off going outside. Looking back at the cats with which I grew up, a lot died early because they were allowed to go outside. It’s hard for me to justify the risk to the cat, wildlife and public health for some anthropomorphic “he’d really enjoy being outside” argument.


Songbird Salmonella in Sonoma

This story's a couple of weeks old, but Sonoma County (California) residents have been warned about an outbreak of salmonellosis in songbirds. Outbreaks of salmonellosis occur occasionally in songbirds such as finches, and can result is lots of sick and dead birds. There are also risks to other species, including cats and people.

Why cats? Cats can be exposed to Salmonella from eating infected songbirds, and sick birds are typically a lot easier to catch than healthy ones.

Why people? People can be exposed to Salmonella from areas the birds have contaminated, particularly bird feeders and their vicinity. People have been advised to remove bird feeders or clean them regularly, and to promptly remove dead birds from under feeders.

  • Removing bird feeders temporarily might help keep birds (including sick birds) farther away from people. It's not going to hurt the birds since other food supplies are typically abundant.
  • Washing feeders can reduce the Salmonella burden but it could also increase the risk to people if they contaminate themselves while washing them. Certainly, people should not wash bird feeders inside the house, especially not in the kitchen sink. They should also take care to avoid contaminating their clothing and make sure they wash their hands thoroughly after finishing with the feeder.

"Songbird fever" is a colloquial name for salmonellosis in cats - a testament to the potential for feline infection. It's uncommon but can be severe, and cats can act as a bridge between sick birds and people by bringing Salmonella into the household. This is just one of many reasons why domestic cats are better off living indoors.

MRSP in urban rats

A year or two ago, I received an email from Dr. Chelsea Himsworth, who was doing some interesting work looking at different bacteria found in rats in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. This is an impoverished urban neighbourhood with lots of homeless people, IV drug users and HIV-infected individuals... and lots of rats. Dr. Himsworth, a veterinary pathologist working on a PhD at the University of British Columbia, is assessing potential health risks posed by rats to this type of population. The reason she got ahold of me was to see if I was interested in looking for some different bacteria, like methicillin-resistant staphylococci, in these rodents.

If you look, you often find, and that was the case here with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus pseudintermedius (MRSP). This multidrug resistant bacterium was found in nasal or oral swabs from 2.1% of rats (Himsworth et al, Emerging Infectious Diseases 2013). So it was relatively uncommon but certainly present.

One question: from where did it come? Most MRSP isolates found were the same as the most common strain found in dogs, so presumably the rats picked it up directly or indirectly from pets or stray dogs. However, there was also a type we've never run across before. That could mean that there is a separate rat-associated MRSP strain, but more likely it means this strain is present in dogs in Vancouver and we just haven't found in dogs elsewhere yet (there aren't many of us typing MRSP, and we find new strains not uncommonly). While dogs and rats presumably don't spend time lounging around together, there is certainly potential for direct or indirect contact between dogs and rats, and rats have been found to harbour dog-associated oral bacteria in the past.

Another question: what's the risk to people? The risk of infection is probably limited, but not zero. MRSP can cause infections in people but doesn't do so very often. MRSP is unfortunately becoming fairly common in dogs, so people are commonly exposed, yet human infections are still rarely diagnosed. So, the risk to humans from these rats carrying MRSP is pretty low overall, although we'd rather not see new reservoirs for this bug.

What about the rats? Rats may be the innocent bystander here, having been infected by dogs. We don't know whether MRSP causes infections in rats. It probably can in certain circumstances.

Can rats spread this to dogs? I guess it's possible. Rats are probably not contaminating the environment too heavily with this bug from their noses or mouths (compared to dogs), but direct transmission if a dog caught a carrier rat could certainly be possible. The risk to the dog population is pretty low since this pathogen is well established in dogs already and there's a lot more dog-dog than rat-dog contact.

Why does an antibiotic-resistant bacterium live in these rats when they're not receiving antibiotics? Good question. Antibiotics certainly help when it comes to selecting for resistant bacteria, but they're not absolutely required. There are a lot of other factors that can also play a role, so rats don't need direct or indirect exposure to antibiotics to acquire MRSP (or other multidrug-resistant bacteria). It could be that they are just commonly exposed and the bacterium only hangs around for a short period of time, or that there are some other factors in the rats, their food or their environment that select for these resistant bacteria.

Boy Scouts not so prepared this time

Earlier this year, a troop of Boy Scouts in the US beat off a rabid beaver that was attacking their leader (I wonder if there's a badge for that). Boy Scouts and infectious diseases are in the news again, but not with as happy a story.

In the recent incident reported on ProMED, ten Boy Scouts that attended a camp on the banks of the Semois River in Belgium developed leptospirosis - a potentially severe bacterial infection caused by Leptospira bacteria. The bacteria are shed in the urine of a variety of animal species, and people can become infected through contact with contaminated water or animals. The boys reported having played with a rat, which was likely actually a muskrat, based on the description of its size.

Three of the boys were hospitalized.  Hopefully all are on the way to recovering.

This is yet another reminder that wildlife should be left alone. It's possible the boys were infected from the environment, but handling a muskrat (which was presumably sick if they were able to get that close to it) certainly increases the risk of exposure to a variety of infectious diseases.

Image of a North American muskrat (photo credit: Linda Tanner)(click image for source)

Another rabid beaver

I don't know whether it's because

a) there are more rabid beavers these days,

b) rabid beavers have always been around in these numbers but they have recently acquired a taste for human flesh, or

c) it's just a fluke,

but another rabid beaver was recently reported in the US.

The latest incident involved a beaver in West Springfield, Virginia that chased after some kids at a nature centre. The kids had been swimming and saw a beaver swimming towards the dock. It's not that unusual to see beaver's swimming around in some areas, but like most wildlife, they typically stay away from people. Not this one though. It "leaped out of the water onto the dock, acting aggressively and chasing the children." Police shot the animal and testing confirmed it was rabid. Presumably, no one required post-exposure treatment since there were no bites.

While rabid beavers are rare, this and earlier incidents involving attacks by rabid beavers, otters and other critters highlight some basic principles regarding rabies safety:

  • Stay away from wildlife.
  • Mammalian wildlife that are acting abnormally, including displaying no fear of humans, should be considered rabid until proven otherwise.
  • Any bite by a wild mammal should be considered a potential rabies exposure. The animal should be tested whenever possible and if it can't be shown that the animal wasn't rabid, it must be assumed that there was rabies exposure.

Common sense goes a long way toward avoiding rabies exposure, but sometimes it's not avoidable. Knowing what to do in the event of a bite from a wild and potentially rabid animal is important. The key is involving physicians and public health personnel who understand rabies exposure risks, so that a proper risk assessment can be done and treatment can be started promptly if it's indicated.

Image: A North American Beaver (Castor canadensis), by Laszlo Ilyes (click image for source)

Echinococcus in Canada

If you ask people about tapeworms, they typically think about the "ick" factor of having a  large worm in their gut, but they probably don't get too concerned. However, some types of tapeworm infection can be serious health problems in humans and animals. One of the worst is infection by the tapeworm species Echinococcus multilocularis. A couple of recent reports about E. multilocularis in Canada have received a lot of attention.

With Echinococcus, the problem isn't the worm living in the intestine. Adult worms live in the intestinal tract of only "definitive hosts," which are primarily foxes and coyotes in North America. The worms aren't necessarily a problem for these animals, but they can pass large numbers of tapeworm eggs in their stool. The parasite's normal life cycle continues when small animals (e.g. rodents like mice and voles) swallow a tapeworm egg. The parasite then develops into a cyst in the animal's body, and if/when the little critter is eaten by a fox or coyote, the cyst gets eaten too and the fox/coyote develops a new adult tapeworm in the intestinal tract.

When it comes to people (and some other domestic species), the problem is what happens when they ingest tapeworm eggs. Like in rodents, the eggs hatch and the immature parasites migrate through the intestinal wall, and can then spread to virtually any place in the body. They can then develop into large cysts that, over a long period of time, result in serious disease. Large cysts and/or cysts in critical areas (e.g. the brain) can be devastating. Treatment is difficult, prolonged and expensive, and death rates are high.

Dogs are a bit of an oddity in this cycle, since they can carry adult tapeworms (not surprising, since they are similar to foxes and coyotes) but they can also get these large tissue cysts. From public health and infection control standpoints, dogs shedding Echinococcus eggs are the main concern, but cysts are potentially devastating in the rare dog that develops one, just as they are in people.

Recent concerns revolve around two papers, one that described a dog from British Columbia with Echinococcus cysts (Jenkins et al. Emerging Infectious Diseases 2012) and a study that identified E. multilocularis eggs in feces from 23/91 (25%) urban coyotes in Alberta (Catalano et al. Emerging Infectious Diseases 2012).

What's the risk in Canada?

It's low.  Actually it's very low, and there have been only a handful of cases diagnosed even in people in North America. But with a serious disease like this, you can't ignore it. If Echinococcus is spreading in coyotes and foxes, it creates the potential for exposure of other species (including humans). The risk gets higher as coyotes and foxes get closer and closer to people and dogs, as is happening in some areas because of urban sprawl. The more coyotes that are around and the closer they are to human populations, the greater the chance that a person or dog will inadvertently ingest a tapeworm egg from coyote feces. Dog parks may be of particular concern because of the high traffic through them and the potential for them to be a big mixing site between wildlife, pets and humans.

There shouldn't be any panic because of this, as it still remains an extremely rare disease. But, it's not much consolation that it's a rare disease if you're the one with a big Echinococcus cyst in the brain. So, while the risk is low, we don't really know (yet) whether it's changing, and it's worth using some basic practices to reduce the risk. These include:

  • The standard: Don't eat poop. Pretty straightforward but easier said than done, in many respects, since fecal contamination of the environment is pretty common. Avoiding inadvertent ingestion of feces can be done through proper handling of dog and wildlife feces and attention to handwashing.
  • Controlling rodents and preventing pets from catching and eating rodents.
  • Preventing dogs from eating wildlife feces.
  • Routine tapeworm deworming should kill Echinococcus and if a dog is at particularly high risk, more regular testing and treatment for tapeworms may be indicated. Not many dogs fit into that category at the moment, though.

Image: Echinococcus multilocularis isolated from a fox in Hungary.  Unlike the very long tapeworms of the Taenia genus, which are most commonly found in dogs and cats, Echinococcus tapeworms are quite small (the bar in the picture is 0.5 mm), but the eggs shed in the feces of animals with an intestinal infection (involving mature adult worms) are virtually identical to those of Taenia spp. (click image for source).

Biohazardous bandicoots? Playground Salmonella outbreak in Australia

The latest edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases has an article describing a Salmonella outbreak in New South Wales, Australia, that was linked to playground sand (Staff et al, 2012).

The outbreak stretched over a long period of time, from 2007-2009, and involved a strain of Salmonella called Salmonella Java. During the course of the investigation, 75 people with S. Java infection were identified, although there were probably many more infected since diagnosed cases are usually the minority of the true total. 

Individuals affected ranged in age from 1 month to 60 years, but the median age was only 2 years, which means the majority were very young children. The investigation started to focus on playgrounds and ultimately 207 sand samples were collected from 39 locations. Thirty-five isolates of S. Java were found, all from 6 playgrounds. These playgrounds had all received sand from the same depot over the preceding year, but Salmonella wasn't found in samples from the depot.

To try to find a source, they started testing critters living in the area of parks, and found S. Java in 34 of 261 animals, mainly from long-nosed bandicoots (a marsupial indigenous to Australia).

It's possible that this Salmonella strain is widely present in bandicoots (and other critters) in the area. I don't know their defecation habits, but if they have a preference for pooping in sandboxes (like cats do), they could be contaminating play areas. The other possibility is that the sand was contaminated from some other source and the bandicoots were infected from the sand just like the people. There's not really any easy way to figure that out.

Sandboxes have been associated with various disease outbreaks, but the overall risk is low and it's certainly not a reason to keep kids away from them. Some things that can be done to reduce the risk of potential disease transmission from things in the sand include:

  • Supervising kids to prevent them from sticking things in their mouths.
  • Making sure they don't eat or drink in the sandbox/playground.
  • Making sure they wash their hands after playing in the sand.
  • Covering the sandbox whenever it's feasible (not always an option but good if it can be done) to help prevent animals from defecating in the sand.

More information about sandboxes and potential disease risks can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources - Pets page.

Image: Long-nosed bandicoot from Eastern Australia (Perameles nasuta)(click image for source)

Plague from pet cat

Plague cases tend to get a lot of press. The fact that this disease killed a large percentage of the human population in a few different pandemics (albeit centuries ago for the most part) probably plays a role in that. Despite the impression by some that it's just a historical disease, plague is alive and well in certain parts of the world, including parts of the US, and infects a few thousand people every year.

Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which lives in various wild rodents and is circulated by fleas. Transmission to people historically has been via fleas that jump from rats to people. However, plague isn't just a rat-human disease, as it can infect other animal species. Among domestic animals, cats seem to be most commonly infected, probably because of exposure while hunting.

The problem with plague and pets has been shown once again a case of plague in an Oregon man who likely picked up the infection from his cat. (Oregon is outside of the main range of plague in the US, where the disease is most common in the southwest). The man was bitten by the cat while retrieving a dried, decayed mouse carcass from its mouth. He developed septicemic plague (infection of the bloodstream), and then pneumonic plague (infection of the lungs), which is the worst case scenario. At last report, he was in critical condition and the prognosis for survival is probably guarded.

There's no mention of the cat's health. Most cases of cat-human plague occur in people taking care of sick cats (especially veterinarians). If a person is infected by a cat bite, I would expect the cat to have been sick with plague, although transmission has been reported from apparently healthy cats. Some other possible routes may need to be considered. If the cat in this case was exposed to plague, then plague's obviously in wildlife in the area, so you have to consider that the infected man might have been bitten by an infected flea (that came directly from an infected wild animal or that the cat tracked in) or from direct contact with wildlife, especially if his house had a rodent infestation.

Regardless, it's important for people in plague-endemic (and neighbouring) areas to be aware of plague and take measures to reduce the risk of exposure for themselves and their pets, such as:

  • Avoid contact with wild rodents (and wildlife in general, since larger wildlife species can also be infected).
  • Keep cats inside.
  • Don't let pets with outdoor access roam unobserved, where they might be more likely to encounter wildlife.
  • Have a flea control program for pets.
  • Address any animal/household flea infestations promptly and aggressively.
  • Make sure sick pets get prompt and appropriate medical attention, since diagnosing plague in a pet may be a critical factor in prompt treatment of people infected by the pet. Plague is an example of a disease for which diagnosing infection in the pet might save the owner's life.

Raccoon distemper warnings

There have been various news reports from different parts of North America describing distemper outbreak in raccoons. Distemper is a viral infection caused by canine distemper virus, which is related to the human measles virus (but the canine version can't infect people). A variety of animal species in addition to dogs can get distemper, most notably raccoons.

Distemper outbreaks are not uncommon in raccoons, and one big problem with distemper is that the neurological signs cannot be distinguished from rabies. Yes, there may be some general trends in how a raccoon with distemper behaves that differ from one with rabies, but it’s far from definitive. That creates issues because distemper is of absolutely no human health concern while rabies can be transmitted to humans and is almost invariably fatal.

A Windsor-Essex (Ontario) outbreak of distemper in raccoons highlights some of these issues and the care that must be taken with regard to public communications.

Authorities are “urging the Windsor-Essex public not to worry about a rising number of incidents with strange-acting raccoons: The poor scavengers are suffering from distemper, not rabies.”

  • This is bad communication in my opinion. I’d rather see something like authorities are "urging the public the avoid raccoons because of the risk of rabies exposure, but to be aware that a raccoon that is behaving abnormally probably has distemper, not rabies." Telling people not to worry is okay, but making it seem like there's no issue whatsoever is another. No one can say for sure that all of these affected raccoons have distemper, not rabies.

A good statement appears later in the article ”(Executive Director of the Windsor-Essex County Humane Society Melanie) Coulter stressed that although the disease is highly contagious among animals, it can't be passed to humans. But she added that raccoons with distemper are still capable of sudden aggression, especially if they feel cornered. As well, the symptoms of distemper are similar to those associated with rabies -- and the difference can't be determined without lab testing.”

  • That’s much better. It highlights the problem and explains that it’s probably not a risk to people, but also makes it clear that you can’t be sure it’s not rabies.

The key thing is avoiding contact with raccoons all of the time, with particular attention to raccoons that are acting abnormally, since they are more likely to have rabies and they can be unpredictable. Some other things to consider:

  • Don’t keep raccoons as pets (common but illegal, at least here).
  • Don’t encourage raccoons to live around your home.
  • Keep pets away from wildlife.
  • Ensure dogs (and cats) are vaccinated against rabies and distemper, in case they have an unexpected incident with a raccoon.

Image: Two Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor), taking refuge in tree, Ottawa Ontario (photo credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson)(click image for source)

Latest round of rabies news

ProMed's latest accumulation of rabies reports has the typical mix of domestic animal and wildlife rabies cases, and some recurring themes.

Fox / dog / human, North Carolina

In this case, a rabid fox had a "direct encounter" with several people, then it was killed by a dog. Three people have started post-exposure treatment.

  • The article states that the dog was vaccinated against rabies, which is good to hear. However, it goes on to say that exposed pets need to be euthanized or have a 6 month quarantine. In reality, standard guidelines are that unvaccinated pets are treated like this while vaccinated pets undergo a less rigourous 45 day observation at home. Hopefully the discrepancy is simply due to inaccurate reporting and not misinterpretation of guidelines by local officials.

Cat / human, Maryland

A rabid stray cat scratched five people, who have been urged to undergo post-exposure treatment. Officials are calling for anyone who potentially had contact with this cat go to an emergency room.

  • However, odds are if someone goes to an emergency room and says they might have had contact with this cat, they're just going to sit around until someone tells them they don't know what needs to be done, or to go home and deal with someone else. Rabies exposure is a medical urgency, not an emergency. People should take a little extra time to work with their physician and/or public health rather than go to the emergency room.
  • People who may have had contact with the cat need a proper assessment to determine if they were potentially exposed to rabies, since just being around the cat or having casual contact is not a risk. Scratches are a bit controversial since they are low risk for rabies transmission (unless the scratches become contaminated with saliva from the animal), and there are conflicting guidelines regarding what to do for a person who is scratched.
  • This is also a good reminder to stay away from stray cats.

Fox / human, Pennsylvania

In this report, authorities are trying to find a person that cradled an injured fox in a blanket. The fox was subsequently identified as rabid and they need to determine whether the person was potentially exposed to the virus.

  • Again, another reminder to stay away from wildlife, and if there is contact with wildlife, make sure rabies exposure is considered.

Bat / human, Indiana

A student was bitten by a rabid bat while he slept in an Indiana University dorm room. He woke up after being bitten (good thing, since he probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise due to the often tiny marks left by a bat bite).  He is now receiving post-exposure treatment.

Rabies isn't going away, at least any time soon. People need to be aware of the risks in rabies-endemic areas, take care around wildlife and vaccinate their pets.

Photo credit: Rob Lee (click for source)

Rabies exposure and confusion

Max, a 12-year-old Chihuahua from Greenfield, New Jersey, was euthanized recently after he was exposed to rabies. While far from unusual, the case highlights the ongoing risk of rabies exposure as well as issues with understanding of rabies guidelines and communication.

Max was attacked by a rabid raccoon - an ever-present risk for animals that go outside (or get outside) in many regions. Animal control was called and the raccoon was caught. It was euthanized and rabies was confirmed, indicating that Max was very likely exposed to the virus.

Here's where things seem to get strange. The paper reports:

"Once exposed to a rabid animal, a six-month quarantine is required for the exposed animal, even those animals that have been inoculated with a rabies vaccine."

  • Not really. In Canada, standard guidelines are for a 6 month strict quarantine for dogs (and cats) that are not properly vaccinated, but only a 45 day observation period is required for vaccinated animals. I don't know if in this jurisdiction they made up their own different rules, whether someone doesn't know what's supposed to be done or whether it's poor reporting, but it's a concern because it can be a difference between life and death... not necessarily from rabies, but from the quarantine requirements alone. People are often unwilling to undertake a strict 6 month quarantine and choose euthanasia (as was the case here), while the 45 day observation period is much more acceptable.

The attending veterinarian stated "Because of the way it was exposed and because of the positive, I think there was a really good chance this dog was going to get rabies".

  • It's certainly possible, and nowhere does it say whether Max was properly vaccinated. However, there's a reason we vaccinate. It's a highly effective vaccine and we're trying to prevent disease. Nothing's 100%, but with proper vaccination, the risk of rabies is greatly reduced.

It's also stated that "due to the nature of rabies, until behavioral changes occur, the animal is not infectious".

  • While this doesn't have anything to do with Max's situation, it's not true. Animals can shed the virus for a short period before they show signs of illness. That's the reason there is supposed to be a 10 day quarantine period after a dog bites someone - to see if the dog develops signs of rabies (which would have major implications for the person who was bitten). 

Curiously, the article ends with a reminder to vaccinate pets, which seems kind of strange if their assumptions are that an exposed animal will get sick irrespective of vaccination status and that vaccination will have no impact on what happens to an animal after exposure.

However, despite the miscommunication, the take-home message emphasizing the need for vaccination should be heeded. As well, people making decisions about what to do after rabies exposure should make sure they do so based on the best evidence that's available, namely the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control.

Canine distemper in Niagara region raccoons

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Welland SPCA are warning people about an apparently large number of cases of distemper in raccoons in the area. Distemper is a pretty nasty disease which can be spread between dogs and wildlife. It’s caused by canine distemper virus, but the "canine" part of the name can be a little misleading, since this virus readily infects some other species such as raccoons.

In addition to the problems with sick and dying raccoons caused by the outbreak, there are two main concerns for pet dogs:

One concern is the potential for wildlife to transmit canine distemper virus back to dogs. It’s hard to say what the risk of that is, and the risk would be primarily to young dogs that are not adequately vaccinated. If a dog has an encounter with a raccoon that is sick with distemper, it’s possible the pet could be exposed to the virus. Dogs are also probably more likely to have close encounters with sick raccoons that are unable or unwilling to run away, as opposed to healthy raccoons. If an inadequately vaccinated dog gets exposed, it can get very sick, which is obviously bad for the dog, and also creates another potentially infectious animal to keep passing the virus along.

The other concern is differentiating distemper from rabies. Distemper can cause signs that are very similar to rabies. If a dog has an encounter with a raccoon that is behaving abnormally, rabies is a big concern. If a dog is exposed and the raccoon is not available for rabies testing, the dog would require a 6-month strict quarantine or euthanasia if it's not vaccinated (or not adequately vaccinated), or a 45 day "observation period" (on a proverbial tight leash) if vaccinated. These measures aren’t easy to implement, and unvaccinated dogs often end up being euthanized because owners don’t want to go through the hassle of a 6 month quarantine.

What does this mean to the average pet owner? Well, nothing that they shouldn’t be thinking about anyway. This just increases the relevance of some routine measures such as:

  • Keeping dogs that are outside are under control so they don’t encounter wildlife.
  • Ensuring dogs are properly vaccinated against distemper and rabies.
  • Taking particular care to prevent exposure of young unvaccinated dogs to wildlife.
  • Discouraging raccoons from taking up residence in yards.

Nothing earth-shattering, but these basic precautions can greatly reduce the risk of disease transmission from wildlife to dogs, be it rabies, distemper or other bad bugs.

Shelter Giardia outbreak from birds?

The Redlands Animal Shelter in California is looking into bird control measures after blaming Giardia infections in dogs on exposure to wild bird poop. On Facebook, Redlands Friends of Shelter Animals have declared "We have a serious problem with birds at the shelter. They land on the kennels and poop goes into the water bowls and give the dogs giardia - which is a parasite that gives them explosive diarrhea."

Giardia is a protozoal parasite that can cause diarrhea in dogs and other species. It can also be carried by healthy dogs, at relatively high rates in some groups. The scope of the problem at the Redlands shelter isn't clear since the news article only talks about one case. Whatever the scope, shelter management is blaming the birds.

Apparently, discussions are underway with different companies about a solution to the bird problem, something that is anticipated to be expensive. However, it's all too common for people to jump the gun on expensive interventions when there's an outbreak and overlook the root causes. While news reports don't always give the whole story, I'd be wary about blaming birds without much more evidence.

Can wild birds carry Giardia? Yes. However, there's more to the Giardia story than that. It doesn't sound like they've actually tested the bird feces to determine whether Giardia is there. Additionally (and critically) it doesn't sound like they've determined the type of Giardia that's infecting the dogs. There are different types (assemblages) of Giardia and most have a limited range of species they can infect. The vast majority of dogs with Giardia in most regions are infected by Assemblage D, a dog-specific strain that comes from other dogs and poses no risk to people. I'm not aware of Assemblage D being found in birds. Dogs can also be infected by Assemblage A, a type that infects people, and also can infect birds.

So, if Assemblage D is involved, they need to look at transmission between dogs within the shelter. If Assemblage A is involved, they still need to focus on dogs but could investigate birds as a potential source.

Overall, Giardia transmission is much more likely due to breakdowns in cleaning, disinfection, hand hygiene and general shelter practices rather than birds pooping in water bowls. It's a lot cheaper to address these shelter management practices (which will also help control various other infectious diseases) rather than dumping a lot of money into controlling bird exposure when in fact that may not be causing the problem. Trying to reduce exposure to bird poop is a good thing as a general practice, but it's important to focus efforts and resources on finding and addressing the true root problems during an outbreak. 

More information about Giardia can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Dead birds, botulism and dogs

There have been a few large outbreaks of dead birds around Ontario lately, with botulism being the main suspect. In one area alone, up to 6000 dead birds have washed up on Georgian Bay beaches. While dramatic, it's not a rare situation at this time of year, and typically relates to birds ingesting fish that died of botulism. When birds eat enough fish with enough botulinum toxin inside them, they can develop botulism themselves and die. This pattern can continue if dead birds are eaten by other animals.

In response to these events, I often get calls about risks to dogs and people. When thinking about it, it's important to consider how botulism occurs. There are two main forms of botulism:

  1. Toxicoinfectious botulism involves growth of the Clostridium botulinum bacterium in the intestinal tract, and as the bacterium multiplies it produces toxin which can be absorbed  into the body through the intestinal wall. This type of botulism is rare in adults (both people and animals), since the mature intestinal bacterial population usually prevents C. botulinum from overgrowing. It's mainly a risk in young individuals.  )This is why you're not supposed to give honey to babies, since C. botulinum spores that can be present in honey can pose a risk to them.)
  2. The other form of botulism in from ingestion of botulinum toxin that's already been produced. This is the most common form. When birds eat fish that have died of botulism, they ingest both the bacterium and its toxins, but it's the toxins that make them ill and ultimately lead to death. Dead birds will probably have some C. botulinum in their intestinal tracts, but the main concern is the botulinum toxin in the rest of their tissues.

Dogs (and cats) are quite resistant to botulinum toxin, and reports of botulism in these species are rare. It would take a pretty large amount of toxin to cause disease (at least compared to many other species) but it's not impossible. Casual contact with areas where birds have died is of basically no risk. Eating dead birds could pose some risk to the dog, depending on the amount eaten and how much toxin was present in the bodies. Ingestion of some C. botulinum bacteria in the birds is of limited concern.

So, walking in an area where birds have died is very low risk. People should ensure that their dogs don't have uncontrolled access to areas where birds have died, so that they can't eat lots of dead birds.

I also get questions about whether dogs that get exposed to beaches where birds have died pose any risk:

  • Even if a dog ate a lot of dead birds and got botulism, a person could only be exposed to that toxin by eating the dog - an unlikely event. The dog could ingest some C. botulinum bacterium, but this also poses minimal risk since the bacterium is pretty widespread and people can be exposed to it from many different sources. Even if a dog had some C. botulinum in its intestinal tract, avoiding contact with feces will reduce the risk of exposure. Even if there was some ingestion of C. botulinum from the feces, there's little risk, especially to adults. Perhaps the main public health concern (which is still very low) would be exposure of infants to C. botulinum from dog feces or perhaps from a dog's contaminated haircoat.

Bottom line: Keeping dogs and cats away from dead birds is a good idea, for several reasons, including botulism exposure, but there's limited public health concern.

Image: Dead birds washed up on the shore of Georgian Bay, on the eastern side of Lake Huron (click for source)

Raccoon invaders and roundworms

Here’s a recent question I received:

 "My problem is that the raccoon broke a window, came into my house, ate the cat food and then defecated on the kitchen floor. Since they went a day without food, the cats may have eaten the few bits of food that were left behind. How can I tell if they got the roundworm?"

It’s a reasonable question given the concerns about Baylisascaris procyonis, the raccoon roundworm. However, there’s basically no risk. While it is very likely that the raccoons were shedding roundworm eggs in their feces, those eggs are not immediately infective. Ingesting a "fresh" roundworm egg isn't a risk. Eggs have to sit around in the environment for at least 11 days (typically 14-28 days) before they become infective. Therefore, unless the feces are allowed to sit around in the house for a couple of weeks, roundworm infection isn’t a concern in such a case.

Bat cull for Hendra virus prevention?

As Australia faces a particularly bad year for Hendra virus, with possible expansion of the range of this serious disease, there have been calls for a mass cull of flying foxes (fruit bats).  These bats are the reservoir of the virus but also a protected species. The virus lives in the bats and is spread mainly through their urine. Horses that are exposed to bat urine or feces (e.g. grazing under a tree where bats are roosting) can become infected and then serve as a source of human infection. Being a highly fatal disease for which there is no available vaccine, looking at ways to reduce exposure to the virus is critical.  When you have a wildlife-associated disease, questions about trying to eliminate the wildlife source often arise.  Any discussion of culling wildlife leads to intense debate, and this situation is no different. Some people support culling bats in areas around people and horses, while others are opposed on various grounds, including a lack of evidence that it will be effective.

Can fruit bat numbers really be decreased? A lot of bats would have to be killed to have a significant impact on the population. Bats can reproduce quickly and migrate readily, therefore a single cull may have only a limited and short-term effect. A good understanding of the dynamics of the bat population is required to determine how many would need to be killed in a given area to have any significant impact. As Biosecurity Queensland's chief veterinarian RIck Symons stated "Culling is against government policy. I believe in terms of biosecurity it's counterproductive, because it does stress flying foxes and they're more likely to excrete (the virus). It could be filled by another bat colony the next day and if you're moving them on, you're moving it on to somebody else and it's somebody else's problem, so that is not the solution."

Will a cull actually achieve anything? Even if effective at reducing bat numbers (probably just in the short term), culls don't necessarily have an impact on disease rates. All bats would not be eliminated, and it's unclear whether there is a critical mass of bats that is required to transmit infection or whether a small number of bats distributed across the same region would be as likely to result in infections. Small or temporary decreases in bat numbers may have no effect.

What unintended consequences might occur if a cull is effective at reducing bat numbers? Removing an animal from any ecosystem has an effect, and it's important to be confident that that effect isn't accompanied by problems of its own. I don't know enough about fruit bat ecology to say much here, but if this species is greatly reduced, are there other species that will come and occupy that ecological niche, and might they be associated with problems of their own? Careful scientific study can help to figure this out in theory, but you can never be certain.

Are other control measures, such as removing roosting sites from pastures and other bat avoidance measures, being adequately used? Culls should only be considered when other measures have failed, but it can be difficult to ensure or enforce compliance with these other measures. Certainly, people in endemic areas should remove trees in which bats roost from pastures. However, not all Hendra cases are associated with identifiable roosting sites.  For example, one affected Queensland farm does not have any fruit bats residing on the property, but it lies along a common flight path for the bats.

It's easy to talk about avoiding a cull when you're not in the heart of the Hendra epidemic, and I understand the reasoning behind the calls for a cull. Hendra is a devastating disease that's a threat to both horse and human health, and it's unpredictable - and that's scarey for a lot of folks. People that have been exposed face an incredibly stressful period while they wait and see if they've been infected with a virus that kills in ~50% of cases. A vaccine is probably still a couple of years away, leaving a period of continued risk and stress. With such a serious disease, considering culling is reasonable. However, it can't be a knee-jerk reaction to public outcry. It needs to be based on sound science to ensure that if it's used, it will be effective. The impact on this protected species also can't be ignored.

This Worms & Germs blog entry was originally posted on equIDblog on 19-Jul-11.

Plague in New Mexico cat and dog

Plague has been identified in a dog and cat from New Mexico. It’s not surprising, since plague is present in some wild animal populations in that region, but it’s still noteworthy because of the serious nature of the disease and the potential for transmission to humans.

Plague is a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis. It’s carried mostly be certain types of rodents in different regions of the world, including parts of the southwestern US. It’s usually spread by fleas that bite an infected rodent and then bite a person or other animal, but it can also be spread by close contact with an infected animal. Cases in cats and dogs are uncommon, but occur in areas where plague is present in rodents, when pets have contact with infected fleas or close encounters with infected rodents (or rodent carcasses).


The latest two cases were in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba Counties in New Mexico. No details were provided about the form of plague (e.g. bubonic, pneumonic), the suspected source of infection or whether there is concern about human exposure. Finding plague in a pet is a concern for a few reasons. It indicates that plague is present in wildlife in the area, and people could be exposed from the same sources as the pets (i.e. fleas, contact with live or dead wildlife). Also, transmission of plague from pets to their caretakers can occur, particularly from cats with pneumonic plague (respiratory tract infection). Knowing that a person has had contact with a pet with plague is critical to making a prompt diagnosis. According to the World Health Organization, plague continues to infect more than 2000 people every year.

The New Mexico Department of Health has made the following recommendations:

  • Avoid sick or dead rodents and rabbits, and their nests and burrows.
  • Keep your pets from roaming and hunting and talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product.
  • Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live, such as woodpiles, brush piles, junk and abandoned vehicles.
  • Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.
  • See your doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever.
  • Put hay, wood, and compost piles as far as possible from your home.
  • Don’t leave your pet’s food and water where mice can get to it.
  • Veterinarians and their staff are at higher risk and should take precautions when seeing suspect animal plague cases.

 Photo: The vector of Yersina pestis: a flea (click image for source)

Dead birds around a feeder: What to do?

Like any animal, disease outbreaks can occur in wild birds. Unless they are large outbreaks they often go unnoticed, but smaller outbreaks can sometimes be encountered by homeowners with bird feeders. Because bird feeders are mixing sites for birds, they are also sites of disease transmission and a place where deaths can be identified. In an outbreak, feeders can contribute to the spread of  infection between birds, and potentially be a source of infection for people or pets.

A classic example of this is Salmonella infection in songbirds. Outbreaks occur periodically and are often identified by people with bird feeders who start to find the odd dead bird in their yard. Some birds can be healthy carriers of the Salmonella bacterium (and therefore be a source of infection for others), while other birds may get sick and potentially die from the infection. If you have noted dead birds around a bird feeder, consider the potential for a disease outbreak, particularly salmonellosis.

The risk to people and pets from Salmonella outbreaks in birds is reasonably low, and probably greatest in cats. Most reports of songbird-associated salmonellosis (songbird fever) are in cats, because cats are more likely to catch and eat songbirds. Sick birds are easier to catch, further increasing the likelihood of exposure during an outbreak. Exposure is also possible through scavenging already-dead birds and perhaps from exposure to heavily contaminated surfaces or spilled feed around feeders.

General recommendations during an outbreak of salmonellosis in songbirds include:

  • Keep cats indoors. This is a good idea at any time, but if you have an indoor-outdoor cat, keep it indoors if there might be an outbreak underway.
  • If your pet has been exposed to a sick bird or an area where sick or dead birds have been found, and your pet gets sick, make sure you tell your veterinarian about the birds.
  • Clean the bird feeder and then disinfect it by soaking it in 10% bleach for 30 minutes. Rinse it after the bleach treatment. If the feeder is difficult to properly disinfect (or you don't want to try), get rid of it by double bagging it and putting it in the garbage.
  • When cleaning the feeder, do it outside so that you don't contaminate any household surfaces. When handling the feeder, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands after you remove the gloves.
  • Keep the feeder down for 1-4 weeks. This reduces the concentration of birds in the area and may help reduce mingling of sick and healthy birds.
  • Remove any dead birds by burying them at least two feet deep in a flowerbed (not in a vegetable garden!).  This is not very easy or practical however - alternatively, double bag the bodies and put them in the garbage, avoiding direct contact with the birds and washing your hands afterward.

Pet raccoon attackes baby, owners in denial

Raccoons are fascinating critters but they don't make good pets. Their curiosity makes them quite disruptive and damaging, and they have seriously injured people (particularly infants). They are also rabies vectors, and in many regions raccoon ownership (along with other wildlife species) is illegal (or only legal with a license). Despite all this, some people continue to keep raccoons as pets, and injuries continue to happen. Unfortunately, it's often not the owners that suffer the consequences, but children.

A one-week-old Griggville, Illinois baby is in hospital after being attacked by her grandparents' pet raccoon. The baby was in a room with the raccoon (not a good idea to start with), when the raccoon starting biting and scratching the baby's face and head. The raccoon's owner thinks the raccoon wasn't being vicious, just curious and trying to get a ribbon off of the baby.

"Rampy was trying to get the bow off the baby's head and it's got long claws and he was scratching up the head trying to get the bow off," said the owner.

Regardless, the fact that it caused severe injury indicates it's a hazard. (Wounds caused by accidents heal at the same rates as those caused my malice.)

Euthanasia of the raccoon was requested to test it for rabies. The owner countered that it had been vaccinated against rabies and dewormed (which raises the question of what veterinarian did this. I'd consider vaccinating and deworming an illegal pet unethical at best).  Further, rabies vaccination does not guarantee that the raccoon isn't rabid. A judge eventually ordered the raccoon to be euthanized.

You'd think the raccoon's owners would be aghast at the attack.  While I can see how they'd be attached to their pet, typically concern over a grandchild takes precedence. Not here, however, as the owners fought the euthanasia order and are railing against local authorities for having the raccoon euthanized after a potentially life-threatening attack. Even the infant's father is taken back by their attitude, stating "If it was somebody's dog that bit a kid, they'd be held accountable. These people should be held accountable for [the raccoon]."

(click image for source)

Plague in Oregon

The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports has a short report about two plague cases in the US. Plague, while often thought of as a historical disease (the Black Death), is alive and well in wild rodents in some areas of the world, including parts of North America, and human cases continue to occur.

Here are highlights of the CDC report (in italics) with some extra comments.

Plague, caused by Yersinia pestis, is enzootic (present in the population, typically at a low level) among rodents in the western United States. Humans can be infected through 1) the bite of an infected flea carried by a rodent or, rarely, other animals, 2) direct contact with contaminated tissues, or 3) in rare cases, inhalation of respiratory secretions from infected persons or animals. In September 2010, the Oregon Health Authority reported the first two cases of human plague in Oregon since 1995 and the only two U.S. cases in 2010.

Both illnesses began on August 21. The patients, aged 17 and 42 years, lived in the same household and might have been exposed to plague by infected fleas from one of their dogs; that dog was found to be seropositive for Y. pestis by the passive hemagglutination-inhibition assay (dilution of 1:64). One patient acknowledged sleeping in the same bed with the dog during the 2 weeks before illness onset. Both patients had high fever and multiple bilateral inguinal buboes; one patient had hypotension, tachycardia, and acute renal failure and was hospitalized. A gram-negative rod with bipolar staining was isolated from a specimen of that patient's blood.

...25 days after specimen collection, the isolate was identified as Y. pestis... Both patients recovered uneventfully after empiric therapy with doxycycline and amoxicillin clavulanate potassium, respectively, although the latter is not considered effective in treating plague.

Plague is a Category A potential bioterrorism agent. Human infections are rare but can be life-threatening. The plague case-fatality rate depends on the clinical presentation (i.e., bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic) and timing of antibiotic therapy initiation; if untreated, the case-fatality rate is >50% for bubonic plague and approaches 100% for pneumonic plague. Rapid laboratory identification can help guide therapy.

Sleeping in the same bed with dogs has been associated with plague in enzootic areas.  Plague patients with no history of exposure to rodents can be infected by Y. pestis if their pets carry infected rodent fleas into the home. Veterinarians always should recommend flea control to dog and cat owners.

This is an example of a situation where pets can play a role in human infection while not being the direct source of infection. While direct pet-human transmission can occur, this typically involves situations where someone has close contact with a pet that is sick with the plague. Most often, this kind of transmission is associated with close contact with cats with pneumonic (respiratory) plague.

Key aspects of reducing the risk of pet-associated plague in areas where plague is, or may be, present, are:

  • Preventing contact of pets with wildlife, living or dead.
  • Preventing roaming of pets in the wild.
  • Discouraging wildlife from living in or around homes.
  • Keeping cats indoors.
  • Routine flea control.

More information on plague and pets is available in our archives.

2010 Animal Rabies Summary

In Canada, rabies testing and surveillance is performed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). National data for 2010 are now available and indicate there were a small number of cases in domestic animals, with more in wildlife, for a total of 123 cases.

Dogs: There were three cases, all in Saskatchewan.

Cats: Four cases, three in Manitoba and one in Alberta.

Horses: One rabid horse in Manitoba.

Cattle: One, from Manitoba.

Skunks: 60 cases, 33 in Manitoba, 17 in Saskatchewan and 10 in Ontario.

Bats: 48 rabid bats, most in Ontario (29) but also in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Foxes: Six from the Northwest Territories or Nunavut.

No rabid sheep, goats, raccoons (down from 58 in 2007), wolves or other species.

Manitoba seems to win the 2010 rabies prize, while Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon had no cases.

As with any disease surveillance, these numbers underestimate the scope of rabies. For an animal to appear on the list, rabies had to be considered and testing performed. So, for  wildlife, it's a massive underestimation of the number of cases, since most affected wildlife don't get tested. Wildlife testing (and testing in general) is typically only done when there has been the potential for human exposure. Domestic animal cases are probably a fairly close representation of the status of rabies in pet and farm animals, since it's reasonably likely that a domestic animal with rabies would be identified as such and tested (although certainly cases can be missed or neglected). As with wildlife, there is probably an under-identification of rabies in feral/stray dogs and cats, since testing would only be done on these animals if they are caught and if there was potential human exposure.

Tularemia alert in Texas

When it comes to handling microorganisms, there are 4 biosafety levels.

  • Biosafety level 1 (BSL-1) organisms are harmless.
  • BSL-2 organisms include most of the commonly encountered bugs, including things like E. coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. They can cause serious disease but infections are often treatable and they can be handled safely with standard lab protocols.
  • BSL-3 organisms are a relatively small group of bad guys that require more extensive facilities and protocols to handle them. These include Coxiella burnetii (the cause of Q-fever) and Francisella tularensis, the cause of tularemia.
  • BSL-4 organisms are the really bad guys that require high level containment like you see in the movies. There are a limited number of BSL-4 facilities in the world and they deal with bugs like Ebola virus.

One of the BSL-3 pathogens I mentioned was a bug called Francisella tularensis, the bacterium that causes tularemia, which is also listed as a potential bioterrorism agent.  Tularemia is a very nasty disease. It's uncommon but human infections occur sporadically in many regions, typically associated with wildlife exposure. It's often associated with contact with rabbits, but the bacterium can be found in a wide range of animals (including insects) and in the environment.

Recently, people in Bell and Coryell counties in Texas (between Dallas and San Antonio) were warned about the potential for tularemia exposure from wild hogs, since 15-50% of tested feral hogs in those areas had evidence of current of past infection. While evidence of past infection (the presence of antibodies against the bacterium in their blood) does not mean that they are actively infectious, it indicates that the bacterium is circulating in the area and that hogs are being exposed. If a hog was actively infected, it could be a source of human infection if there was direct contact (i.e. hunting and butchering).

Because of the potential risk of exposure, the following recommendations have been made:

  • Always wear rubber gloves and eye protection when dressing (i.e. skinning & gutting) wild game.
  • Ensure that game meats are handled carefully and thoroughly cooked.
  • Use insect repellent to keep ticks, biting flies and other insects at bay.
  • Look for rabbit nests in tall grasses before mowing. (As unusual as it sounds, running over rabbits with a lawnmower has been associated with development of tularemia).

The risk of tularemia is pretty low, but it's a very serious disease and you don't want it. Using these basic precautions should help reduce the risk.

Otter attack update

A dead otter was found floating in a pond in Florida near the site of a recent otter attack that was captured on video. Testing confirmed that the animal was rabid. It's impossible to determine whether this is the same otter that attacked the teenager in Boca Raton last week, but it's likely, and shows that rabies post-exposure treatment of the victim was a good decision.

Numerous rabid otters have been identified in Florida in recent years. I haven't seen any information about the viral types that have been involved or how it is thought that otters are becoming infected. Regardless, these incidents should be a reminder to stay away from wildlife, and to consider rabies exposure any time someone has been bitten by a wild mammal.

Raccoons attack baby

A nine-month old Georgia (US) baby is in critical condition after being attacked by two raccoons while sleeping in her crib. The attack occurred in the middle of the night, and the baby ended up with severe bites over her head and other parts of her body.

It's not clear at this point whether these were pet raccoons that were being kept illegally or whether two raccoons broke into the house. If the latter, it's suspected that the family may have been feeding the raccoons, which could have made them less fearful of people than usual. The news clip also shows a large cage outside that could presumably house raccoons (pure speculation on my part here). Authorities are investigating whether these were illegal pets, and if so charges could result.

An unprovoked raccoon attack in a house is pretty strange. Raccoon attacks would be more likely in the raccoon's environment or if they were sick (e.g. rabies). They might also be more likely to try to break into a house if they have been fed by people and lost their fear of humans. Still, attacking a baby seems like a very strange thing for them to do. I also wonder whether an attack like this might be more likely with a pet raccoon, especially if it was an older, established raccoon in a household where a new baby had disrupted the routine. 

Rabies has to be a major concern in a situation like this. One of the raccoons was killed by police. The news clip and article on the same website provide conflicting information about whether the other raccoon was caught. Both raccoons need to be tested to determine whether they had rabies. Otherwise, the baby will need rabies post-exposure treatment.

(click image for source)

Rabies galore

ProMed's monthly rabies update contains some recurring themes:

  • A couple of incidents of dog versus rabid raccoon. The dog usually comes out on top, but the raccoon can exact revenge at the end of the day through the need for quarantine or euthanasia. If the dog is not vaccinated, a long quarantine or euthanasia is required. If the dog is vaccinated, only a shorter observation period is needed.
  • A rabid skunk was found wandering around during the day with a wobbly gait and drooling. Any wild animal that is acting strangely should be considered rabid until proven otherwise. They don't have to be showing signs of severe neurological disease. Something as simple as not being afraid of people or wandering around in areas or at times when they would not usually be found should raise the suspicion.
  • A child who was sleeping outside woke up to "find a raccoon, kind of, scratching at his leg." (I  assume they mean it was "kind of scratching at the kid's leg," (whatever that means), instead of it was "kind of a raccoon.") The raccoon wasn't caught for testing but the child is undergoing post-exposure treatment because a normal raccoon wouldn't be expected to do that, so there is a significant chance of rabies exposure. Scratches are not high risk since rabies virus does not live in the claws, however it is possible that saliva from the raccoon could have been present on the animal's feet or the raccoon could have licked the child before scratching, such that the scratches could have then inoculated rabies virus into the tissues.
  • A couple of reports of rabies in rabid kittens. These cute little rabies vectors cause repeated problems, and lead to public alerts notifying anyone who may have handled the kittens to get evaluated to see if they need post-exposure treatment. Handling of strays should be avoided.
  • A family received post-exposure treatment after being bitten by their rabid cat. Vaccination of pets is not just for the health of the pet. It's to reduce exposure of people as well.

2009 US rabies recap

2009 animal rabies statistics have recently been published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Blanton et al 2010). Here are some highlights:

  • 6690 rabid animals were identified, along with four human cases. (One of those human cases was associated with travel to India, as described as described in a recent post).
  • Rabid animals were identified in 49 states and Puerto Rico.
  • 92% of infected animals were wildlife. Raccoons were the winners (actually, the losers, I guess) with 2327 cases, followed by 1625 bats, 1602 skunks, 504 foxes, 300 cats, 81 dogs and 74 cattle.

It is important to remember that these are rabies diagnoses, not all rabies cases. Certainly, more animals died of rabies and were not tested. These numbers may represent the "tip of the iceberg," particularly for some wildlife species. This can impact on the accuracy of the relative numbers between species, and year-to-year changes in cases, but doesn’t change the fact that rabies is present, widespread, relatively common and can infect a wide range of animal species, including pets. It also highlights why vaccination of pets is still important.


Prairie dog flea control

In response to a case of plague in prairie dogs in Saskatchewan's Grasslands National Park, park officials are dusting prairie dog burrows with insecticide to try to control fleas. A single case of plague, a serious bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis, was identified in a prairie dog in the park earlier this summer. Plague is present in some areas of North America, but it's rare in Saskatchewan. It circulates in wild small mammals, and prairie dogs are particularly susceptible to infection. The main mode of transmission is via fleas, which feed off infected animals, then bite and infect other animals.

Prairie dog numbers at the park have dropped by 50-70% this summer, however it's not known whether plague is involved in this, as there has also been a drought. It's fair to assume, though, that if there has been one case of plague found in the park, there have probably been many other undiagnosed cases. Whether or not plague is responsible for the large drop in prairie dog numbers, measures to try to reduce plague transmission are a good idea because of the impact it can have on the prairie dog population (and those of other wild mammals), as well as people or pets that may venture into the area. Anyone or anything walking through the area could plausibly be bitten by an infected flea. The odds are probably pretty low, but park officials are trying to keep people and pets out of the park to reduce this risk.

Classroom squirrel

A Rosedale, California high school has welcomed a new pet into the classroom: a squirrel. CJ Addington, a physics teacher, caught a baby squirrel that some students spotted outside the school.

I have some (just a few) issues with this:

  • In most areas, catching and keeping wildlife is illegal, for good reason.
  • A baby squirrel wandering around outside is not necessarily an orphan that needs saving. There's a good chance this squirrel will die now that it's been taken from its habitat.
  • I doubt the teacher has a wildlife rehab license and knows how to take care of the squirrel.
  • The teacher wants to "take care of it until it's a full grown squirrel and ready to go back in its habitat." Releasing an animal that has been hand-raised in captivity back into the wild is likely going to result in a quick death, and that's completely unethical.
  • I have a hard time figuring out how to incorporate a pet squirrel into a physics curriculum.
  • The teacher says "The administration did not have any disputes about having the squirrel." The administration, therefore, is clueless about a host of issues, including capture and care of wildlife and CDC recommendations against having wild animals in situations like this.
  • Mr. Addington also said, "It is too young of a squirrel to be carrying anything, so I didn't have to vaccinate it or anything like that." This squirrel could be carrying a wide range of pathogens, including rabies. The number of people that have been exposed to rabies through handling baby wildlife is astounding.
  • "It's cool to have a squirrel that freaks out at random points of class" said one student. That certainly sounds like a healthy, stress-free animal that is thriving in its environment (note the sarcasm here). Also, it shows how it's a potential classroom disruption.

Pets can be useful additions to classrooms in specific and well-controlled situations. Things to consider when deciding if an animal is reasonable to have in a classroom include:

  • Are there any school rules that cover this?
  • Are there any students that are at increased risk of infection because they have compromised immune systems? (Part 2 of that question is "If no, are you SURE that you would know if there was an immunocompromised child in the class?)
  • Are there any students who are afraid of the animal? (Part 2: are you sure? applies here too).
  • Are there any students who might be allergic to the animal? (Part 2 again...)
  • Is there an educational value, or is it just a novelty?
  • Will children eat in the same room as the animal?
  • Can the animal be kept safely and in a humane manner?
  • Who will care for the animal on weekends and holidays?
  • What happens if the animal gets sick?
  • Will protocols be established before the animal arrives, covering the above plus other issues, such as who will have access to the animal, how it will be handled, what type of hygiene practices will be used, etc?

The list goes on. Clearly, having an animal in a classroom is something that requires a lot of thought, time and work. It is possible for animals to be valuable teaching tools in a classroom, as part of the curriculum, as well as providing entertainment and increased empathy towards other species. It's also possible for animals to expose people to serious infectious diseases, to be distracting and to disturb the education of individual students or whole classes.

Wildlife should never be classroom pets.

(click image for source)

Tiger smuggler thwarted

Security screeners at a Thai airport discovered an attempted tiger smuggling, presumably by realizing stuffed animals don't have a skeleton. A 31-year-old Thai national was trying to smuggle a sedated tiger cub in a carry-on bag. As it went through the X-ray machine, screeners noticed an item resembling a real cat. Closer inspection identified the actual item and the individual was arrested.

Unfortunately, this person is presumably among the very small minority of smugglers that actually get caught. Creative smugglers, established smuggling pathways, lucrative markets and extremely lenient penalties combine to make this a pathetic but unfortunately often profitable venture that results in the deaths of huge numbers of animals, and acts as a potential way to transmit various infectious diseases that could affect other animals or humans.

Image: Tiger cub at the Philadelphia Zoo (source:

Mass rabies exposure from raccoon

Yet again, a large number of people are undergoing rabies post-exposure treatment because they were exposed to a rabid raccoon that was "adopted" from the wild. In this case, a North Carolina family found a baby raccoon at the side of the road and decided to bring it home. Over the next couple of weeks, various family and friends handled the raccoon, and many were bitten or scratched in the process. The raccoon then died and was identified as being rabid. Forty-five people are now being assessed to determine whether they need to be treated for rabies exposure.

The family dog, which was unvaccinated, has been taken by Animal Control and now faces either a six-month strict quarantine or euthanasia. I suspect the dog will be euthanized.

So, this probably well-meaning but misguided action has resulted in:

  • the need for costly post-exposure treatment of many people
  • presumably a stressful period for many of those people
  • probably the death of the pet dog (although not having the dog vaccinated played a big role here too, since if it was vaccinated, it would only face a 45 day observation period at home, not a strict six-month quarantine or euthanasia).

Fortunately, the raccoon was tested. Otherwise we might be talking about human deaths from rabies, instead of people needing post-exposure treatment. The people who took in the raccoon could also face charges since keeping wildlife without a permit is illegal, but it sounds like that's unlikely to occur.

A few take-home messages from a situation like this:

  • Leave wildlife in the wild.
  • Vaccinate your pets.
  • If you are exposed to an animal that is acting strangely, make sure it's tested for rabies (they did this right, at least).

(click image for source)

Plague in Saskatchewan

Plague has been identified in a dead prairie dog in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, Canada. This disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, circulates in small wild mammals in some regions, and is spread by fleas. While plague is endemic in some parts of North America, it's very rare in Canada. (The last reported human case was in 1939).

Prairie dogs are highly susceptible to plague.  The most likely problem with plague occurring in prairie dogs in Grasslands National Park will be the impact on the prairie dog population itself. Outbreaks of plague in prairie dogs can be devastating, virtually wiping out entire colonies.

  • Plague can be transmitted to people, but the risk here is quite low. For people to become infected, they have to be bitten by a flea that was infected by biting an infected prairie dog (or other animal). The risk of exposure to a flea infected by wildlife is pretty low if people aren't crawling around prairie dog holes and take some basic precautions.
  • The risk to pets is similarly low. Cats are more susceptible to plague than dogs, but they have to be exposed via a flea or, more commonly, from hunting and eating infected wildlife. There presumably aren't too many pet cats in Grasslands National Park, so the risk of exposure is probably limited. Dogs are rather resistant to plague, but they are probably at increased risk of exposure in a situation like this because they are more likely to be taken into areas where infected animals and fleas may be present (e.g. with people going hiking).

The greatest public health and domestic pet concern would be if plague spread beyond prairie dogs and into other small mammal populations that live closer to people or that have more contact with pets. The likelihood of this becoming a major problem is pretty low, but it's a serious disease and this situation certainly needs to be monitored.

In response to this case, park personnel are monitoring prairie dog colonies to look for more cases. They are presumably also keeping a close eye out for any other unexpected deaths of small mammals. Park officials have recommended that people stay away from prairie dog colonies, tuck their pants into their socks (to keep out fleas) and use insect repellent on their shoes. They have also closed some areas to domestic pets.

Photo: Black-tailed Prairie Dogs atop their burrows in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, Canada (source:

Look up before opening your mouth

Recently, Kings of Leon canceled an outdoor concert after a pigeon (with very good aim, apparently) in the rafters above the stage managed to poop on band members, including one shot that hit the face of the band's bassist.

Besides, the "ick-factor," what are the concerns?

Various studies have found potentially nasty microorganisms in pigeon poop, including:

  • E. coli
  • Various microsporidia
  • Various Cryptococcus species
  • Multidrug resistant Staphylococcus spp
  • Salmonella
  • Chlamydophila psittaci
  • Mycobacterium avium complex

The risk of disease is pretty low for most people, and we are potentially exposed to many of those bugs on a daily basis. The risks increase with higher ingested doses (so direct-deposit of poop is a much greater concern that inadvertent contamination of your hands) and in people with compromised immune systems. It's unlikely but not impossible that someone would get sick from exposure to pigeon feces, and don't eat poop is a good general philosophy for life.

Rabies update

ProMed has a new list of recent rabies incidents. The whole report can be seen by clicking here, but these are some examples of common or important issues they touch on:

- Roaming pets + wildlife = bad news: One person's dogs killed a raccoon while out for their "romp around the yard." The raccoon was rabid. There's no mention about the vaccination status of the dogs. If they were vaccinated, they probably got a rabies booster and are under a 45-day "house arrest" for observation. If not, they either need to be placed under a strict 6-month quarantine at a separate facility, or they'll be euthanized. Another report describes a different dog that is now under a 6-month quarantine after attacking a raccoon. In yet another report, a North Carolina woman's dog was euthanized because it killed a rabid fox and was unvaccinated (the owner chose euthanasia over quarantine).  That dog is now dead mainly because the owner didn't take the simple and relatively inexpensive step of ensuring that her dog was vaccinated.

- Pissed-off wildlife bite. Sometimes they're rabid too. Get too close at your own peril: A South Carolina man is undergoing post-exposure treatment because he was bitten by a raccoon while removing it from a trap. I'm glad that he had the animal tested. It's pretty easy to see someone in a situation like this just yelling at the raccoon and letting it go, thinking they were bitten because the raccoon was upset and not realizing that they might have been exposed to rabies.

- Some people just don't get it: In response to rabies exposure of close to 50 church members from a rabid bat while on a mission trip, the mission leader stated "It's just part of being in rural America, so there's really not a lot to talk about." Ugh. Rabies exposure should not be written off as some benign, unavoidable rural American experience. It's exposure to an almost invariably fatal disease that requires a series of expensive treatments. It's also not a rural thing. Rabies exposures can occur commonly in urban areas as well.

- Stray kittens can be cute but deadly: A rabid cat and kitten were identified in Ocean City, Maryland, and authorities are looking for people that may have come into contact with them. Human exposure to rabies from handling cute but infected kittens is not uncommon, and sometimes involves a lot of people. If you see a stray kitten, it's best to leave it alone. If you feel the need to rescue it, make sure that you get it to a vet for an exam, and that it subsequently goes somewhere where it can be properly observed and taken care of. If you're bitten in the process, make sure the kitten is quarantined for 10 days to see if it's rabid, or euthanized and tested. The worse case scenario is when people play with stray kittens, get nipped in the process, dismiss it as a minor or playful bite, then release the kitten back into the wild, never knowing whether they might have been exposed to rabies.

(click image for source)

Rabies, rabies, and more rabies

It's not like we needed any evidence that rabies is still an active, deadly disease, but a recent ProMed-mail posting contains 16 different rabies notices. They include:

  • An animal control worker who was bitten by a rabid, stray cat that was trapped by a person in Texas.
  • Rabies exposure in an unvaccinated dog in Maryland, that resulted in euthanasia of the dog  because the owners didn't want to undertake the required 6 month quarantine for exposed, unvaccinated dogs. The dog was exposed to rabies virus while killing a raccoon.
  • Diagnosis of rabies in two trapped raccoons in New Jersey.
  • Rabies exposure in an Arizona woman who was attacked by a rabid fox while in her yard.
  • More marauding (presumably rabid) foxes attacking people and dogs in Maine and South Carolina.
  • Rabid bats and skunks in Colorado.
  • A rabid fox in Alabama.
  • Rabid raccoons in Virginia.
  • A rabid raccoon attacking a vaccinated dog.
  • Rabies exposure in people bitten or scratched by rabid stray kittens in New Jersey, Nebraska and Georgia.

Common themes or take home messages:

  • Rabies is here (in most areas, at least) and it's unfortunately not going away any time soon. We can reduce the number of affected animals and decrease the risk of exposure of people and domestic animals, however, with good prevention strategies.
  • Vaccination of pets is a cheap and effective way of protecting them, and anyone they are in contact with.
  • Keep pets away from wildlife.
  • If you are bitten by a wild animal, you must consider it a potential rabies exposure unless the animal can be proven not to have rabies.
  • If you see an animal that is acting strangely, stay away and call animal control.

(click image to enlarge and for source)

Distemper outbreak in California

A canine distemper outbreak has been identified in raccoons, dogs, coyotes, foxes and skunks in Los Angeles County. Local residents are being reminded to vaccinate their dogs against distemper and report any suspected signs of distemper to their veterinarian. (Keeping their pets away from wildlife should also be recommended.)

Distemper is an infection caused by a virus which is related to the virus that causes measles in people. It can cause different types of disease in dogs, raccoons and some other wild mammals, but neurological disease is often present and can appear similar to rabies.

Canine distemper cannot be transmitted to people, but, in a roundabout way, distemper outbreaks can be a public health concern.  This is because of the potential for rabies cases to be mistaken for (and dismissed as) distemper cases, leading to increased exposure of people to rabid animals.

Quite a few years ago, there was a cat with neurological problems under my parents front porch.  It was a stray cat that had been in the neighbourhood for a while, and which sometimes interacted with people. When the local authorities were contacted, the response was "Don't worry, it probably has distemper." This was probably true, and since there was no known direct contact with people (something that is difficult to really know in a social stray) testing for rabies wasn't done. However, the concern is that rabies cases will be missed, or, more concerningly, human exposure to rabid animals will be missed because of the assumption that it's really distemper.

Understanding disease patterns in an area is important when determining the likelihood of a particular disease and the appropriate response to a sick animal. At the same time, you can't get complacent and assume that trends are absolute. With an almost invariably fatal disease like rabies, you have to be careful not to overlook the rare case amongst large number of other, similarly appearing diseases. If someone has contact with an animal suspected of having distemper, the potential for rabies exposure must not be forgotten.

Image source:

More rabid raccoons in Central Park

Eight more rabid raccoons have been found in New York's Central Park over the past two weeks. These, plus the 12 rabid raccoons reported in the park last year, represent a major increase in disease frequency since only 1 rabid raccoon was identified in Central Park from 2003-2008. That's a concerning development given the number of people that visit this 843 acre park in the heart of New York city every day.

In response, the city's Health Department has started an education campaign to alert people to the risk, and tell people to stay away from wildlife, report any sick animals and to keep their dogs on leashes. Every pet owner also needs to make sure their dog's rabies vaccine status is up-to-date, even if they always keep their dog on a leash, because you never know what a rabid raccoon will do (such as attacking a leashed dog that walks by). There are also plans to vaccinate raccoons in and around the Park, however I couldn't find details about what type of vaccination program will be used.

Baylisascaris in Winnipeg

There was another paper published in the August issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal about Baylisascaris procyonis (roundworms) in raccoons, this time in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Sexsmith et al 2009). The study was actually undertaken after infection with B. procyonis larvae was identifed as the cause of death of several animals in the collection at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg.

The researchers collected feces from 52 active raccoon latrines around the city and from 114 "nuisance" raccoons that were caught, euthanised and submitted for necropsy to the local lab. Interestingly, the vast majority of latrines and nuissance raccoons were found close to the two major rivers that run through Winnipeg. Half (50%) of all the latrines were positive for roundworm eggs on at least one sample (out of a possible 3). Among the necropsied raccoons, 61/114 (53.5%) were positive for roundworms. Adult raccoons were almost four times as likely to carry roundworms than juveniles (which is in contrast to a previous study that found juveniles more likely to be infected), and bigger raccoons (over 2.75 kg) were more than seven times as likely to carry roundworms compared to smaller animals. Although there are regions where the prevalence of B. procyonis s reported to be very low, Winnipeg, like many other regions of North America, has joined the ranks of those where the prevalence is high and the public needs to be aware of the associated risks.

The most severe zoonotic disease caused by B. procyonis is called neural larval migrans (NLM), which results from migration of parasite larvae through the central nervous system (i.e. brain). Two of the reasons this is much more of a concern with raccoon roundworms (Baylisascaris) compared to dog and cat roundworms (Toxocara) are:

1) A massive number of parasite eggs are passed in the feces of infected raccoons (which typically have a very high burden of adult worms). Coupled with the fact that the eggs are further concentrated in areas where many raccoons defecate (latrines), this can lead to heavy exposure of people (or animals) who come in contact with the soil in these areas, which greatly increases the risk of infection.

2) The larvae of B. procyonis are very active migrators, and they get bigger as they migrate through tissues - much bigger than Toxocara larvae ever get, which means they also tend to cause a lot more damage before they're finally (if ever) trapped or killed by the body's immune response.

Natural infection of dogs living in the same areas as raccoons has been found - it's not common, but it appears to occur frequently enough to warrant noting. Dogs and cats can also be infected by their own species of roundworms, which will also result in parasite eggs being shed in the feces. It's important to have your veterinarian perform a fecal examination for your pet on a regular basis so any parasite infestations (roundworm or other) can be treated.

Dogs and cats may also be susceptible to larval migrans in the same manner as people (and the animals at the zoo in Winnipeg) if they are exposed to high numbers of infectious eggs. Remember that roundworm eggs must be swallowed in order for infection of any kind to occur, so good hand hygiene and avoiding soil contamination of food are key to preventing transmission. Also, do not allow your pet to dig or play in an area where raccoons defecate (preventing direct contact between your dog and raccoons should go without saying!).  And of course, feces of any kind (and from any species) should be treated as infectious material, and handled with appropriate precautions.

More information about Baylisascaris and raccoon latrines is available in our archives.

Seagulls, beaches and bad bugs

Just as I'm getting ready to go on vacation (that will hopefully involve some time on the beach), I read an article in the latest edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases about seagulls and beaches as reservoirs of multidrug-resistant E. coli (Simoes et al 2010). In this study, the researchers collected seagull poop from beaches in Porto, Portugal and tested them for the presence of extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) E. coli, a highly drug resistant form of this common bacterium. Thirty-two percent (32%) of the E. coli they isolated were ESBL, a pretty impressive rate in wild birds that would not be directly exposed to antibiotics. Various E. coli strains were present, including some that can cause severe disease.

In some respects this is pretty concerning, and in other respects not too surprising. We know that birds in various (including remote) regions can carry multidrug-resistant bacteria. The ability of wild birds to carry these bacteria, combined with the wide geographic range that some bird species have, raises concern about the role of birds in the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as the potential for contracting a nasty drug-resistant infection while on the beach. Birds certainly have the ability to help spread certain types of bacteria over wide ranges. However, their overall role is probably very limited compared to the role played by people and (domestic) animals. For birds to become carriers of these bacteria, they have to pick them up from somewhere, which presumably doesn't occur until the bacteria have built up to a good level in people and/or animals. I doubt that birds account for many human infections. Antibiotic exposure through antibiotic residues in water or food sources could also play a role in the presence of these bacteria in birds, but that's an area that's not well understood. 

So, how does this influence my time on the beach? Not much. I wasn't really planning on having contact with seagull poop, and this paper just reinforces that basic precaution. Other basic measures such as keeping open sores covered, avoiding cuts by wearing shoes in rough areas or sand that might be contaminated with sharp objects, avoiding contamination of food with sand, avoiding areas with obvious bird poop contamination, and hand washing before eating and after leaving the beach are easy to do.

Leptospirosis and cold weather

When we have a -30C windchill and snow on the ground, my first thoughts usually aren't about survival of bacteria in the outdoor environment. However, some microorganisms are well adapted for survival in various adverse conditions and we shouldn't assume that cold=dead for every bug of concern. Along that line, we received a question recently about survival of Leptospira and I passed it along to our lepto expert, Dr. John Prescott. Here's his guest post:

A reader in Ohio owns a dog that had leptospirosis, and had some questions about leptospirosis that may be of general interest.

Q1. Since the yard is likely contaminated with leptospires, she asked “How cold does the temperature have to get before the Lepto organisms are killed?

A1. Once it’s frozen, as it is now in January, they’re dead. Leptospires are fragile bacteria that are killed by dry heat and by freezing. They survive well in moist or wet environments, with moderate temperatures. In some countries leptospirosis is called “mud fever” or “fall fever” since this description captures so well the environmental conditions under which they thrive.

Although leptospirosis in dogs can occur at any time in the year, it mainly causes disease in the fall, late September to December, peaking in November. The increasingly mild and prolonged falls that we have experienced in the last decade are thought to be an important reason that leptospirosis has resurged in dogs. Interestingly, there is often a “blip” of leptospirosis in dogs in March in Ontario (and likely Ohio), since this is when the snow melts and conditions are wet, even though we can still get freezing at that time. I suspect that this is also the time when the raccoons that are thought to be the main source of leptospirosis for dogs are again active after the winter, and are foraging for food for themselves and their babies.

Q2. Do dogs still shed leptospires after they’ve been treated?

A2. No. Leptospires are quickly killed by the antibiotics used in treatment, amoxicillin or doxycycline. There is no danger that dogs treated for a week with these drugs are a risk to people or other animals. You may read in otherwise very reputable textbooks that these antibiotics “do not eliminate the carrier state” but I have no idea where this misunderstanding comes from.

Q3. Where can I find out more about leptospirosis in dogs?

A3. I like the web site, which is maintained by a vaccine company. I was surprised how many web sites devoted to leptospirosis that there are, but like much on the internet some contain highly misleading information. The “Worms & Germs” site has good past blogs about canine leptospirosis and is usually (just kidding, Scott) a reliable source of information.

One very common entrenched misconception, which is very hard to kill, is that vaccination does not stop animals shedding the organism. This is quite wrong. I suspect this misconception came from an experimental study half a century ago when dogs with pre-existing kidney infection with a leptospiral serovar called Canicola were vaccinated. It would not be expected by anyone that these animals would stop shedding since antibodies don’t penetrate into the place in the kidney where the leptospires live and from which they are shed in the urine. What vaccination does incredibly effectively is to prevent leptospires from actually reaching the kidney and setting up home there. The leptospires are removed by antibodies in the blood, so they never reach the kidney.

Boy attacked by beaver

A five-year-old Oklahoma boy is recovering after being attacked by a beaver.  Beaver and attack aren't two words that you usually put together, but in this case the boy went to pet a 60 lb beaver that he saw outside and it proceeded to attack him, taking a "chunk out of his calf" in the process. The beaver was killed with a crowbar.

This is a pretty unusual situation. Beavers aren't known for attacking people, which should raise some red flags right there. Rabies should be considered in any mammal that acts abnormally. An aggressive act by a species not known for unprovoked attacks would certainly count.

The boy's mother went to "great lengths" to get the beaver tested for rabies. I'm not sure why great lengths were required since this was a bite from an abnormally-behaving wild animal in a rabies endemic area, but it's great that she was aware of the problem and acted accordingly. While the outcome was unfortunate for the beaver, the family is lucky that the beaver was killed and available for testing. If it had gotten away, they would have had to assume that it was rabid, meaning the child would need rabies post-exposure treatment. That's expensive and somewhat unpleasant (two initial shots and 3-4 boosters) but virtually 100% effective at preventing rabies (and since rabies is almost always fatal, it's a necessary procedure).

This report highlights a two key points:

  • Leave wildlife alone.
  • If you are bitten by a wild animal, make sure rabies is considered. It's very rare but fatal when it occurs, so you don't want to take any chances.

Rabies quarantine in (and of) Santa Cruz County, Arizona

A large number of rabies cases in Santa Cruz County, Arizona has lead to the rare practice of implementing a county-wide rabies quarantine. Fifty-four cases of rabies have been diagnosed so far this year, mainly in skunks. That's about twice as many as normal.

Quarantine is probably not the best description of what they are doing, but they are taking measures to improve vaccination of pets, reduce roaming pets and discourage human-wildlife interaction.

For the next 60 days, the following rules are in place:

  • Dogs and cats must be vaccinated against rabies.
  • Dogs must be confined to the property or on a leash.
  • People are not allowed to feed wild animals.
  • Pet food must not be left outdoors after sundown.

Those are all pretty standard measures that should be used anytime. It sounds like these rules already exist in Santa Cruz County but their "quarantine" means that they will be aggressive in enforcing them. Increasing enforcement is a good idea, but ongoing efforts after this quarantine period are also needed because rabies will continue to be a risk in that area.

Image source:

Lizards on a plane (or greedy idiot on a plane)

Michael Plank, a California resident, was caught at the Los Angeles airport smuggling 15 lizards from Australia. Two geckos, two monitors and 11 skinks were found worth over $8500 and confiscated. The reptiles were strapped to his body inside money belts.  It's not explained how the smuggling was identified, but I imagine wriggling clothes might be a tip-off to an astute customs agent. The smell that would have almost certainly been generated from reptiles defecating during the trans-Pacific flight also could have played a role.

Importation of reptiles is regulated by the international Convention on International Trade of Endangers Species (CITES), and Mr. Plank faces some pretty severe financial penalties and jail time, although typically people charged with animal smuggling or abuse get off with a slap on the wrist at best. The problem is that people can make substantial amounts of money from smuggling reptiles, and the downside of being caught is often limited, thus making it a lucrative business. However, illegal importation of animals creates risks for disease importation, which can be a major problem for both the human population and native animal populations. Importation of animals is also associated with very high mortality rates - the percentage of smuggled animals that survives transportation is pretty low.

This isn't the first time this guy has been caught illegally importing reptiles, so it's safe to assume that he's done this many times before. Hopefully someone will get serious about the associated human health, animal health and animal welfare problems and start using some of the stiff penalty options that are available. People that buy reptiles should be conscious about the sources of the animals (and their forefathers), and ensure that they are not contributing to illegal activities.

How to remove a skunk from a pool

This morning, as my dog Meg and I went out to get the newspaper, she ran towards our pool fence, barking (pretty unusual for a dog that is afraid of chipmunks). I wondered what the issue was until I saw a black and white tail sticking out. The pool has been closed for the season and there was a skunk standing on the cover. The cover's about 1.5 feet below the deck and the skunk couldn't get out.

After going over various options, like putting things in for the skunk to climb out on (unsuccessful), getting a live trap (too lazy to go find one), scooping it up with the pool skimmer net (a matter of how badly I'd be sprayed, not whether I'd be sprayed), getting a wildlife removal person in (too cheap to get someone else to do it) or lacing food with a sedative, I came up with the following plan:

  1. Find a large garbage pail with a handle. Tie a long rope to one handle.
  2. Place the garbage pail on its side in the pool, with the handle tied to the rope on top.
  3. Lure the skunk into the pail (e.g. with food) or, as I did, herd it in using a LONG pole.
  4. When the skunk is inside, pull on the rope to tip the garbage pail back up.
  5. Cover the garbage pail. A plastic kiddie pool works well.
  6. Carefully but quickly lift the covered garbage pail out of the pool.
  7. RUN... upwind.

It worked for me... no guarantees however.

Rabies death in Indiana

An Indiana woman has died of rabies. Little information is currently available.  Reports state that bat rabies was involved but that the source of exposure was not known. Presumably, they have determined that she was infected by the bat rabies variant (strain), but she didn't report being bitten or otherwise exposed to a bat. Bat rabies is a serious concern because it is easy to get bitten by a bat and not know it. Most cases of rabies in Canada and the US are associated with bat exposure. This is a tragic reminder about why we pay a lot of attention to bats and rabies (and why my family received post-exposure treatment after having a bat in the house a few years ago).

More information about rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Pet bear kills woman

In yet another tragic example of why large wild species should not be kept as pets, a 37-year-old Pennsylvania woman was killed by her pet black bear. She entered the 350 pound bear's cage, a 15 by 15 foot steel and concrete enclosure (hardly a good environment for a bear) and was mauled. A neighbour then shot and killed the bear. A Bengal tiger and African lion were also present on the property. No indication was given about what might have triggered the attack.

Large carnivorous mammals don't make good pets. It's also questionable whether people can adequately and humanely care for such animals. I have a hard time believing the bear had a good quality of life living in a small steel and concrete pen. The picture above is not from this case but from another bear enclosure elsewhere  in Pennsylvania (see link here).

Every year, there are reports of these types of "pets" severely injuring or killing their owners, yet there is little effort in many regions to control the ownership of these animals. Local officials knew about these animals and the woman had permits for them. Why (and how) someone could actually get a permit to keep these species is beyond me.

Pets are great, but pet ownership has to be logical and safe, and there have to be benefits for both the human and animal. Keeping dangerous animals locked up for curiosity's sake is no longer (or at least should no longer be) socially acceptable. These animals should be in the wild or in a properly managed zoo or wildlife rehabilitation sanctuary.

Rabies tales from Los Angeles County


This comic, based on actual (and unfortunately common) events, was developed by Los Angeles County Veterinary Public Health. It's a good example of novel ways of communication regarding zoonotic diseases. More information from Los Angeles County Veterinary Public Health (and apparently future editions of Rabies Tales) can be found on their website.

Bat bite in the park

A Montreal man is undergoing rabies post-exposure treatment after being bitten by a bat in Lachine's Summerlea Park. He found the bat lying on the ground and when he picked it up to take a closer look (surprise, surprise) the bat bit him.

This incident shows yet again the need for better rabies education. While we don't want to create fear and loathing of bats, we should consider them rabies-positive until proven otherwise. That doesn't mean we want to eradicate them. It means we want to educate people to enjoy them from a distance and never have direct contact with them.

Never try to touch a bat. A bat lying on the ground in a park is not a healthy bat. It may be sick for various reasons, but rabies is certainly a possibility. If you come across a sick bat, call animal control. They can safely remove it so that no one has the chance of being bitten. If someone has had contact with the animal, the bat must be tested for rabies, as was done here. Rabies is preventable using proper post-exposure treatment, but it's very expensive, a hassle and a series of vaccine's isnt' exactly fun.

Rabies bait safety

Rabies baiting is a common and effective way of controlling rabies in some wildlife populations, particularly skunks, raccoons and foxes. It involves dropping edible rabies vaccine, by airplane or by hand, into targeted areas. Millions of rabies baits are used across North America and baiting programs have been cited as a key aspect of wildlife rabies control. In one year, 1.3 million baits were dropped in targeted areas of Southern Ontario alone over a two-month period. A good series of pictures of rabies baiting is available here.

Rabies baits are usually a small rectangular block comprised of something that smells or tastes attractive to the targeted wildlife into which a liquid vaccine has been added. Some use fish meal and fish oil to attract wildlife. Others use combinations of fats, icing sugar, vegetable oil and artificial marshmallow flavour (don't ask me why - I'm certain there's a reason but I don't know if they've done taste-testing).

Often, the local public is notified in advance of the drops being made, and it is recommended that kids be closely supervised outdoors for a week or so to ensure they don't come into contact with the baits. It is also often recommended to keep pets indoors or on leash during the same period. (Pets are much more likely to be exposed to and to eat the vaccine than kids). It's also recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly if you have contact with a bait.

Rabies baits are quite safe, and these recommendations shouldn't cause concern. It's a case of being overly cautious. The baits are safe to touch, but it is still recommended that you don't touch them (if nothing else, they may make your hands smell pretty bad). Ingestion of a rabies bait by a person or pet is also unlikely to cause a problem. Any adverse affects are more likely to occur due to the non-vaccine component of the bait, particularly because of the typically high fat content. Ingestion of a lot of baits could certainly cause vomiting or diarrhea in a dog, just like ingestion of large amounts of other inappropriate foods.

Some groups recommend that you contact Poison Control if your pet has been exposed to a bait, but I'm not sure what they'd do in such a case. Other groups ask you to report to them that a pet ingested the bait, likely so they can consider exposure of people and pets when determining target areas for the next year. There's similar variation in recommendations if a person ingests the vaccine. Often it is recommended that public health be notified so they can record it, but it's very unlikely anything would be done.

On a related note, you cannot use rabies baits as a free way to vaccinate your pet. It might work, but there is no way to know, and if your pet is exposed, it would be considered unvaccinated if it was not properly vaccinated by a veterinarian with an appropriate dog/cat vaccine.

Image from:

Raccoon deterrents

We've written various posts about raccoons, raccoon latrines and concerns about the raccoon roundworm (Baylisascaris procyonis). I received a question today about how to keep raccoons from coming back after a latrine has been identified and cleaned. It's a good question, and one without a simple answer.  I've looked through various sources and have found a wide range of recommendations. (Whenever I see such a wide-ranging list of recommendations, I wonder whether anything actually works.)

Home remedies include:

  • Sprinkling pure soap flakes on the lawn and watering thoroughly
  • Mixing bone meal in garden soil
  • Sprinkling diluted tabasco sauce over fruits and vegetables (wash before eating, as you should anyway!)
  • Lighting up the area where raccoons are a problem

Various commercial deterrent compounds are available, such as one that apparently has the scent of a coyote, or one that's a combination of vinegar, pepper and sulfur.

Another approach is motion-sensitive deterrents. Motion-sensor-based lights can be useful since raccoons often come rooting around in the evening or overnight, and lights that turn on when they approach could be effective. These would require a power source, which could be limiting in some places like sheds. Similarly, motion-sensor based systems that spray water or citronella (sometimes used to keep cats out of certain areas or off countertops) could be useful. Battery-operated units could be used anywhere. (Here's a link to one. I've never used it but it shows you what I'm talking about). There are also motion sensors that hook up to hoses.

One problem with deterring raccoons is their intelligence. They can often find ways around deterrents, or adapt to them. Along with any attempts to actively deter the raccoons, it is also important to try to reduce the desire of the raccoon to come to the location. If there is a good food source or other desirable attraction, the raccoon will probably try harder to stay around. Tightly covering garbage cans and removing other possible food sources (e.g. food for outdoor cats) are important steps. Making sure neighbours (or other family members) aren't feeding the raccoons is also important, because food is a great motivator.

Do not feed the bears

A 74-year-old Colorado woman that had been warned repeatedly not to feed bears was killed by one. The circumstances surrounding the attack are not known, but there was clear evidence of mauling. Wildlife officers had received numerous complaints for at least a decade that the woman was habitually feeding bears.  She was warned several times but never ticketed because of difficulty gathering solid evidence of the illegal activity. Wildlife officers and sheriff's deputies killed two bears after the attack. It was reported that a necropsy of the larger 394 lbs animal showed that it appeared to have been feeding on a human, but this has not been officially confirmed yet.

As we've discussed before, people often feed wildlife thinking they are helping the animals, but the opposite is true. Numerous problems are caused by feeding wildlife, including making animals dependent on people for survival, decreasing animals' fear of humans, encouraging animal encroachment into urban areas and generally increasing the chance for both human and animal injury and infection.

Baylisascaris (raccoon roundworm) in cats

A reader posed this question, with respect to having raccoons living around the house:

"One thing that causes me concern with the raccoon roundworm is the possible danger of infection to my pets and myself through the feces left behind from the raccoons in the yard and possibly in my vegetable garden. Can I acquire the roundworm from working in the soil and/or from my root vegetables etc? My cats mingle near the raccoons, they don't bother each other, should I get my cats tested?"

Certainly, working outside (particularly in soil) leads to the potential for exposure to many disease-causing agents, including Baylisascaris, as well as dog and cat roundworms (Toxocara spp.). Eating unwashed/uncooked vegetables is also a risk. However, in the grand scheme of things, the risks to the average person (not very young or very old, functional imune system) are minimal, especially if basic hygiene measures are used, such as washing hands after working in the garden, and thoroughly washing vegetables. Raccoons tend to defecate in the same specific areas most of the time (raccoon latrines), so in general gardens probably aren't common sites for raccoon feces, although it certainly can occur. Cats are probably more likely to defecate in gardens. We shouldn't take concerns about Baylisascaris lightly, because even though disease (larval migrans) is very rare, it can be very severe.

Now, about testing cats for Baylisascaris - there's not much use, for several reasons:

1) The likelihood of a positive result is very low. The prevalence of Baylisascaris in dogs is very low. Little is known about the prevalence in cats specifically, but it is presumably very uncommon there as well.

2) It can be difficult to differentiate Baylisascaris from the feline roundworm, Toxocara cati. Unless the lab has experience with this, they may not be able to tell the difference. Therefore, you might get a misleading result.

3) What does a positive test tell you? It tells you that the cat is shedding this parasite or that is has ingested eggs that are just passing through the intestine.  The risk to people is still minimal if litterboxes are cleaned regularly. Contaminated stool is not infective until it has sat around for days to weeks, so regularly cleaning the litterbox and good handwashing can control the risk.

4) What does a negative test tell you? It tells you that the parasite was not detected on this single sample. It could have been there but not been identified. It might not be there today but could be there tomorrow (though this is still unlikely). A single negative test today does not tell you too much.

5) What would you do with the results? Probably not much. In the very unlikely chance that results were positive, it would likely be recommended to repeat testing to see if eggs are just passing through or whether the animal truly is infected with the parasite. That would determine whether treatment is needed. Otherwise, recommendations would be pretty much the same in both cases (good regular deworming program as directed by your veterinarian, proper handling of cat feces...).

The best way to prevent exposure of your cat to Baylisascaris (as well as other pathogens, predatory wildlife, vehicles, etc.) is to keep it inside.

VRE in Arctic birds

In the same edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases as a report on Campylobacter jejuni in macaroni penguins in Antarctica, there is a report about vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) in glaucous gulls in Point Barrow, a remote area of Alaska.

Vancomycin-resistant enterococci are an important problem in human medicine, mainly in hospitals where they can cause sporadic infections and outbreaks of infection. These infections can be difficult to treat because VRE is resistant to many antibiotics, including vancomycin. VRE is not very common in animals in North America at this time, but there is concern that it could be an emerging problem, because as VRE rates in people increase the bacterium gets spread more commonly to animals. There have been many more reports of VRE in animals in Europe. This has been largely attributed to the widespread use of avoparcin (a drug related to vancomycin) as a growth promoter in food animals in Europe, a practice that was common until the mid 1990s, but is now banned in many countries.

This study demonstrates that organisms like VRE can be spread to wildlife in one of the most remote regions of North America. As the authors state "This spread suggests that few (if any) places on earth may be protected against the spread of such resistance, and the dispersal mechanisms are far more efficient than previously thought."

These two reports show how well (and expectedly) infectious agents can travel. They are also good examples of why we need to be thinking globally, ecologically and truly in the mindset of “one medicine” if we really want to understand infectious diseases.

Macaroni infected with Campylobacter

...Macaroni penguins, that is. There is a report in a recent edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases about isolation of Campylobacter jejuni from Macaroni penguins in Antarctica. Campylobacter is a bacterium that can cause diarrhea in people and animals, and which can also be found in the intestinal tracts of a wide variety of animal species, even when they’re healthy. Researchers typed the Campylobacter isolates from a group of penguins in Antarctica and found that many were a strain that commonly affects people. They had a few different ideas about how the penguins became infected. One possibility is contamination from toilet wastes that a nearby research station dumped into the surrounding water. They thought that ships discharging sewage into the ocean near the penguins' feeding grounds could also be a source of the bacteria, as could migratory birds like albatrosses that spend part of the year closer to people. Whatever way it got there, a penguin colony provides an exceptional opportunity for Campylobacter to spread, since huge numbers of penguins live in very close proximity to each other. Fortunately, Campylobacter rarely causes disease in birds, and we hope that's true with this strain in penguins as well.

This report shows how closely linked humans and animals can be, even when we usually live far apart. It also shows why we keep saying that a global ecological approach to infectious diseases is needed - we need to look at the big picture.

More information about Campylobacter can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Feeding wildlife: Bad idea

A recent question from a reader:

"We live adjacent to the Oak Ridges Moraine in Aurora (Ontario) so our property has always been popular to local wildlife.  For years, neighbourhood animals have enjoyed dry cat food in our backyard but the town has ordered this practice must stop immediately.  Among reasons given, were that this food is harmful to the animals.  This should be appropriate food for stray and feral cats but am writing to enquire if there is any information available about the effect of dry cat food on birds, raccoons and other domestic wildlife. Since the Premier declared Ontario free of the raccoon strain of rabies last year and there have been no recorded cases in York region, the main health concern is likely raccoon roundworm.  I understand that incidence is quite rare but, coincidentally, the recent articles about roundworm cases in New York led me to you. Can you recommend sources of information to learn if feeding dry cat food is harmful to wildlife (raccoons) and if this food would cause increased risk of raccoon roundworm in the immediate area."

This raises some very interesting points.

What are the bad points about feeding wildlife?
Wildlife is best kept wild. The more we feed wild animals, the more contact there can be with people. That can be dangerous, depending on the animal (e.g. coyotes). It can also bring disease-carrying wildlife in closer proximity to peoples’ living spaces, such as encouraging roundworm-shedding raccoons to live next to houses. If you feed raccoons and they decide to stay, you may end up with a highly contaminated raccoon latrine somewhere on your property. That could pose a particular risk if you have young children or developmentally delayed individuals at home.

The natural food supply is one of nature’s ways of keeping animal populations at appropriate levels. If lots of people feed wild animals, their numbers can increase, resulting in more exposure to people, increasing animal population density (with corresponding risks to the animals from disease transmission) and an unsustainable population should the "free food" source disappear.  It can also have a huge impacts on the local ecosystem of which we may not even be aware. Making wild animals dependent on humans is not a good thing.

Cat food is for cats. Dog food is for dogs. Neither of these necessarily provide appropriate nutrition for a raccoon, because dietary needs are different for each species. That being said, eating small amounts of pet food periodically likely doesn't do any harm to the raccoons.  However, if raccoons rely on pet food as their main food source, I wonder whether health problems could develop, because the animals may stop eating the foods they need to provide a balanced diet.
What does "raccoon-rabies free" really mean?

Raccoon rabies is a type of rabies virus (example of other types are bat rabies virus and skunk rabies virus). Raccoons can be infected by other rabies viruses, so even though Ontario may be free of raccoon rabies, the province is not necessarily free of raccoons with rabies. Raccoon rabies control efforts have been highly successful in Ontario, but it is important to be aware that raccoons can still carry rabies. Any feeding practices that encourage contact with raccoons (as well as skunks, foxes and other wildlife) are of concern because these animals can carry rabies, of one type or another.

Garden veggies and poopy parasites

Spring appears to have finally sprung in earnest in Southern Ontario (although we may still get one more frost on the weekend, so I hear) and people are getting back out into the garden.  An increasingly  popular trend in recent years, particularly this year now that the Obama's are doing it too, is vegetable gardening.  Lots of people like the idea of growing their own veggies in their own backyard, or perhaps in a community garden plot for city dwellers who still want to get their hands dirty - it's economical, good for the environment, and the plants can be grown "organically" without the use of chemicals or pesticides.  However, pesticides and garden bugs aren't always the only things to worry about having on your fresh veggies.  We received the following comment from a Worms&Germs reader:

"...What if veggies get infected with raccoon stool[?] Can eggs be killed after [the] veggie is grown and ready to eat?"

Great question.  The concern in the case of raccoon stool is the eggs of the roundworm Baylisascaris procyonis, which can be passed in huge numbers by a relatively high percentage of raccoons in many regions.  If swallowed, the eggs release larvae which can migrate through the tissues of the body, rarely causing visceral, ocular or neural larval migrans.

The good news:

  • Raccoons like to defecate in the same areas most of the time, usually on a relatively flat, elevated surface (e.g. woodpile).  These areas become raccoon "latrines", and the soil in the area can become very heavily contaminated with roundworm eggs.  The good part is that most raccoons therefore not defecate in your garden.
  • Vegetables cannot become "infected" by the parasite - the eggs cannot be absorbed or otherwise get inside a vegetable, they can only contaminate the parts of the plant that are directly in contact with soil.

The bad news:

  • Even though raccoons may not poop in your garden, they can still track roundworm eggs into the soil on their fur or paws when they come by to explore your crop, so you should always consider soil outside as potentially contaminated.
  • Baylisascaris eggs are highly resistant to disinfectants and chemicals, so they can't be killed this way.
  • Raccoon roundworms aren't the only parasites that may be found in garden soil.  Dogs and cats can carry other roundworms (Toxocara spp.) which are also capable of causing larval migrans if swallowed (although infection with these worms in dogs and cats is not nearly as common as infection with Baylisascaris in raccoons).  Cats in particular, unfortunately, do sometimes like digging in gardens and may sometimes use a garden as a litterbox.
  • Soil, particularly if it's contaminated by the stool of any animal, can also contain many different kinds of bacteria such as Salmonella.  Even if you can somehow protect your garden plot from animals, purchased garden soil and fertilizers may contain or may have come in contact with animal stool somewhere along the way.

So how do you make your garden veggies safe to eat?

  • Wash wash wash: Because Baylisascaris eggs are so difficult to kill, the best thing to do is physically remove them from all surfaces of your vegetables by washing thoroughly to remove all visible dirt before doing anything else.  If you cut into a vegetable before washing it, the soil on the outside can contaminate the inside.
  • Peel peel: Peeling vegetables ensures that all dirt (including any dirt stuck in tiny crevices on the vegetable's surface, or dirt you may not be able to see with the naked eye) is removed prior to consumption, but it's still crucial to wash the veggie first (and your hands) before peeling.
  • Cook: From an infection control perspective, it's best to cook vegetables before eating them.  This actually won't do anything to Baylisascaris eggs - these have to be removed by washing and peeling - but it does help kill bacteria that either contaminated the veggies out in the garden or that contaminated the veggies during their preparation in the kitchen.  For those of us who like our nice crunchy vegetables, obviously cooking them won't do, therefore washing and peeling become that much more important.

And, of course, always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you've been working in the garden, even if you wear gloves.

In a lot of urban areas, it's hard to prevent raccoons and other animals from getting into yards and gardens.  There are things you can do to discourage raccoons from hanging around your house, and if raccoons establish a latrine on your property it must be very carefully cleaned up.  For more information on Baylisacsaris, raccoons and cleaning up raccoon latrines, please see our archives.

Songbird fever: Salmonella in birds and cats

As is common this time of year, outbreaks of Salmonella infection in wild birds have been widely reported in parts of the US. Salmonella circulates regularly at low levels in the wild bird population, and sporadic outbreaks involving large numbers of sick and dead birds are periodically encountered. These are often noticed in urban areas when dead birds are found around bird feeders.

Salmonella can infect a wide range of species other than birds, including cats (and people). Cats can be exposed to Salmonella during these outbreaks from catching and eating sick birds, or healthy birds that are carriers of the bacterium. In fact, one name for salmonellosis in cats is songbird fever, a testament to the role of birding in feline salmonellosis. An example of the potential effect of wild bird Salmonella outbreaks on cats is described in the The Daily Journal from International Falls, Minnesota. In this report, a local veterinarian explains that he has seen an increase in salmonellosis cases in pets at his practice, mainly in cats. In the past 2 weeks, he has diagnosed approximately 20 cases, which is a pretty impressive number. Most of the infected cats had known contact with wild birds or areas around bird feeders.

If your cat goes outside, it is at higher risk for Salmonella. If there is an outbreak of salmonellosis in wild birds in the area (or you're seeing dead birds around the feeder), then the risks are probably much higher. While Salmonella is usually associated with diarrhea, not all cats that are infected develop diarrhea. Some develop mild disease without diarrhea (e.g. fever, lethargy), some get serious systemic infections (septicemia), and some may show no signs of illness at all but still pass Salmonella in their stool. In any case, the bacterium can still be transmitted to and infect people.

Any outdoor cat that develops diarrhea should be considered a Salmonella suspect. Really, Salmonella should be considered in all outdoor cats with fever and signs of illness that are not specific for a particular disease. Stool culture can be used to diagnose Salmonella.

Avoiding wild-bird associated salmonellosis in cats is pretty easy - keep your cat indoors. A cat that can't catch birds or hang around contaminated areas surrounding bird feeders won't be exposed to Salmonella from wild birds. At a minimum, cats should be kept inside if there is an outbreak of Salmonella in wild birds in the area, or if dead birds are found around your bird feeder. Ideally, they should be kept inside all of the time, for many reasons.

More information about Salmonella in pets can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Rabies quarantine in Flagstaff, Arizona

Quarantining animals that have potentially been exposed to rabies is a standard practice, but quarantining a whole town is new to me. Because of a large increase in rabies cases in the Flagstaff, Arizona area, a rabies quarantine was established on April 8th by the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. The quarantine requires all dogs and cats to be enclosed or secured on their owner's property. When off the property, animals must be on a leash that is no longer than six feet in length. All dogs and cats must be vaccinated, and low-cost rabies vaccine clinics have been held to help increase compliance with this requirement. Vaccination of wildlife using baits containing an oral form of rabies vaccine will also be performed. The quarantine also restricts feeding and interacting with wildlife. Also, people cannot leave pet food outside after sunset and all compost piles must be completely enclosed.

This is an aggressive approach to rabies control in an area experiencing a wildlife outbreak of the disease. They've implemented comprehensive but still quite practical measures that should help reduce the risk of exposure of domestic animals (and people) without a significant negative impact on pet owners. I've mentioned my concerns about rabies vaccine clinics in the past, but this is a situation where I think it's a good idea.

It's always hard to evaluate the effectiveness of outbreak measures, because you never know what would have happened if nothing had been done. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how well this quarantine works, both in terms of the number of new rabies cases they see and the response of citizens to these restrictions. It would be very useful if Coconino County personnel provide information about how things went when the quarantine is over - the information might be useful for management of future rabies outbreaks.

Plague in a rabbit: New Mexico

Plague has been diagnosed in a dead rabbit found on a private residence in New Mexico. Plague, also known as the black death, is a highly fatal disease of humans and many animals caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis. While often considered a disease of mainly historical interest - having killed a large percentage of people on the planet during a few pandemics over the centuries - plague is actually still alive and well in some regions. In North America, most cases occur in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California.

Yersinia pestis primarily lives in wild rodents and is transmitted by fleas. Many different animal species, including cats, dogs, rabbits and people, can be infected if bitten by a flea from an infected rodent (hence the historical association of the disease with rats). Predatory species (like dogs and cats) can also become infected by eating infected animals. Dogs are relatively resistant to plague and usually only develop mild disease, while cats and rabbits are as susceptible as people, and can develop bubonic, septicemic or pneumonic plague. Transmission of plague from pets to people can occur, and most often involves cats. People can become infected by close contact with sick pets, or being bitten by a flea from such a pet.

Preventing plague in animals involves flea control and reducing exposure to infected wildlife. In areas where plague is active, all pets should be on a flea control program. Cats should be kept indoors to reduce the risk of exposure (e.g. keeps them from hunting infected rodents). Dogs and cats should not be allowed to have contact with dead animals of any kind. Measures to reduce rodent infestations in and around the house are also important.

More information on plague is available in the Worms & Germs archives.

Weil's disease from a pet rat

A recent edition of the Veterinary Record contains a case report of Weil's disease in a person that adopted a feral (wild) rat (Strugnell et al, 2009). Weil's disease is a severe disease of the kidneys, liver and other body systems that can develop after acute leptospirosis (infection by Leptospira bacteria). This group of bacteria can infect a wide range of animals and is typically shed in the urine. The person that was affected adopted the rat after it was caught by her neighbour's cat. The paper says that the rat was "urinary incontinent" - not something we usually notice about rats since they are not typically litter or house trained. I presume this means the rat was urinating frequently when out of its cage, including when it was being handled. Because of this, the owner reported that she "aimed" to wash her hands after every time she touched the rat.

A couple of weeks after adopting the rat, the woman was admitted to hospital because of lethargy, muscle aches, mild abdominal pain, cough and a bloody nose. Blood tests showed that she had decreased levels of white and red blood cells, as well as liver and kidney disease. After further testing she was diagnosed with leptospirosis. She had to be treated in the ICU, but eventually made a complete recovery. The adopted rat and the other rat that she owned were euthanized by the owner's partner shortly after she was admitted to hospital. Testing of the adopted rat identified Leptospira in the kidneys.

This is another example of why wild animals should be left in the wild, and another case highlighting the need for veterinarians, physicians and public health personnel to work together.

More information on Leptospira and leptospirosis can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page and in our archives.

Batty decision? Changing rabies exposure recommendations

The British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) has changed its rabies exposure guidelines and gone against established protocols used elsewhere. Typically, anyone who has slept in a house where a bat was present at the same time is considered to have been exposed to rabies if the bat was rabid or the bat's rabies status is not known. This is because bats can bite people while they are sleeping and the bite wounds can be so small that someone may not even notice after they wake up. People who get rabies from a bat bite almost always die. Because of the severity of this disease, the general rule has been to err on the side of caution and consider anyone even possibly bitten by a bat as exposed to rabies.

Now, the BCCDC has stated that this is "overkill," and that people who do not have known physical contact with a bat will not be given the usual post-exposure rabies vaccinations

Yes, rabies is a very rare disease in people in this part of the world... but you don't want to be the rare person that gets it. I understand that risk analysis may indicate that there is, overall, low risk from sleeping in the same house with a bat, and that almost all people that receive post-exposure treatment didn't actually need it. However, for a fatal disease with the potential for uncertain exposure in such a situation, I think this is important to err on the side of caution. It's always difficult to reconcile risk analysis data with human lives. The BCCDC estimates that this new policy will only result in one (1) additional rabies death every 675 years. That's not a lot, but how would you like to be that one person?

I hope this isn't a decision influenced by cost. Post-exposure treatment costs about $1500 per person, and they expect that this protocol will result in "hundreds" of fewer people receiving treatment. The treatment of all people sleeping in houses with bats actually costs a huge amount of money to prevent a small number of cases. However, what is the cost (financial and otherwise) of even a single case of rabies that could have been prevented? That's a lot harder to incorporate into a risk analysis. Personally, if I had a bat in the house overnight and my kids were potentially exposed (again!), I'd go for post-exposure treatment without any hesitation. Call me a paranoid parent if you will, but I'd sleep much better at night (for years, since the incubation period following exposure can be a long, long time).

The full BCCDC report can be found here.  More information on rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page and in our archives.

Raccoon roundworm in New York

ProMed mail has a report about 2 cases of Baylisascaris procyonis infection in people in Brooklyn, New York.  Baylisascaris is the raccoon roundworm and is very commonly found in the intestinal tract of healthy raccoons. Raccoons shed this parasite in their stool, and after a short period of time, the parasite larvae become infective to other animals and people. Infective larvae can survive for a long time in the environment. People become infected by swallowing the larvae that can be found in dirt or on any object contaminated by raccoon stool. Disease in humans due to this parasite is rare but can be extremely severe.

The first case in this report involved an infant with neural larval migrans, a condition caused by migration of the roundworm larvae through the brain. Despite treatment, the child now has permanent brain damage because of this disease. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon consequence, as the infection is not usually identified until severe and irreversible damage has already occurred. The child had a history of eating soil, and swallowing soil contaminated with raccoon feces is the most likely source of infection.

The second case involved a 17-year-old with ocular larval migrans, which is caused by migration of the parasite larvae through the eye. The parasite was killed using laser therapy, however the patient lost all vision in the affected eye before the infection was identified. There was no mention of where or how the teenager may have been exposed. Infection of someone of this age is very uncommon, as most 17-year-olds are much less likely in ingest (intentionally or accidentally) raccoon stool. It would be useful to know whether this patient had a developmental disability which results in an increased likelihood of swallowing dirt or feces, or whether there may have been some other type of exposure.

Baylisascaris infections in people are extremely rare, despite the fact that a large percentage of raccoons carry this roundworm. This report of two cases occuring in the same area within a few months of each other is surprising.  Hopefully it's just a bad coincidence, and not an indication of some change in the incidence of this disease. Avoiding Baylisascaris means avoiding ingestion of raccoon stool. Sounds simple enough, but this is of particular concern with young children and people with developmental delays who are more likely to swallow contaminated dirt or stool, or put dirty/contaminated hands or objects in their mouths.

More information about Baylisascaris and preventing transmission of the infection can be found in our archives, as well as information about cleaning up raccoon latrines.

Rabid fox comes knocking

The Cherokee Scout reported a story about a North Carolina man that was attacked by a rabid fox in his own home. It seems he was awakened one morning by scratching at the front door. Thinking it was his cat, he opened the door, only to be greeted by a rabid fox that bit "plumb through [his] big toe", rampaged around the house, then bit his other foot. He killed the fox using a mop handle (definitely self defence), and it tested positive for rabies (no surprise here!). This was the sixth confirmed case of rabies in the county since March 16, 2009, indicating that people in that area should be particularly cautious. Marshall Duggan, the man that was attacked, was treated for his bite wounds and is now undergoing rabies post-exposure treatment. The morals of the story are:

  • Be wary of rabies, particularly when an outbreak is underway. Make sure, as in this case, that animals are tested if there has been potential exposure (e.g. a bite).
  • Make sure your pets are vaccinated against rabies.
  • Keep your cats indoors. Mr. Duggan is lucky his cat wasn't exposed to rabies or killed by the rabid fox.
  • Don't trust foxes that knock on doors.

More information about rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Bird seed recall: Salmonella

As you undoubtedly know, a large Salmonella outbreak has occurred in the US, associated with contaminated peanuts. The scope of this outbreak continues to expand in unexpected areas, including pets. The latest development is a voluntary recall of bird seed. The recall affects 20-pound packages of Wild Birds Unlimited Wildlife Blend bird food (produced by Kentucky-based Burkmann Feeds) with the manufacturing date code 81132200 2916 08124. 

The contaminated bird seed was linked to the deaths of several birds in North Carolina, and it was confirmed that the bird seed manufacturer received peanuts from the Georgia facility that was implicated in the Salmonella outbreak.

People that have used this bird seed should clear out their bird feeders, ideally while wearing gloves. The feeders should be thoroughly cleaned and then disinfected (although this may be easier said than done). Hands should be washed after handling the bird seed, potentially contaminated feeders or any other potentially contaminated items.

The risk to people is presumably quite low, but people handling the bird seed could potentially contaminate their hands with Salmonella and then inadvertently swallow some of the bacteria. Concerns are greatest in people with compromised immune systems, the very young, the elderly and people taking antibiotics, as they are more likely to get sick following exposure to small numbers of Salmonella.

More information about Salmonella can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Animal smuggling - Do you know where that pet came from?

Animal smuggling is a surprisingly big problem. A report in the Canberra Times quotes an Australian customs officer as saying animal smuggling is a $20 billion industry and the third largest criminal activity in the world (after drugs and weapons).

Animal smuggling can range from someone trying to sneak an exotic pet into the country, or large- scale smuggling by certain individuals (like the guy who tried to smuggle 300 poisonous frogs onto a plane). It can also consist of massive organized crime ventures.

There are many concerns associated with animal smuggling:

  • Animal welfare: High death rates are not uncommon among animals during illicit transportation. Smuggled animals are often wild-caught, and even if they survive the stress of transportation, they may die soon after arrival. Particularly when you hear about animals being smuggled sewn up in giant teddy bears, or stuffed into pockets and pouches, it's a wonder as many of them survive as they do.  The customs office in the Canberra Times article sums it up nicely "'People who smuggle animals don't care about the animals ... They actually see dead animals as an overhead.'"
  • Introduction of foreign diseases: Smuggled animals have been blamed for introduction of serious diseases like avian influenza into areas where these diseases don't normally exist. This can be a huge problem, as it creates the potential for large outbreaks amongst indigenous animals or people whose immune systems are completely naive to the diseases.
  • Transmission of disease to new owners: Smuggled animals certainly have not undergone good health examinations and quarantines, and can carry a host of potentially harmful microorganisms. This can put buyers and their families at risk.

Despite being a huge industry, there are things that everyone can and should do to reduce animal smuggling:

  • Don't buy animals that you know were or may have been illegally imported. Doing so  contributes to the death of countless other animals for every animal that survives.
  • Don't buy wild-caught animals like birds and reptiles. Wild caught doesn't mean smuggled, but it may be hard to tell the two apart. Some of the disease risks, particularly to individual buyers, are the same with legally and illegally imported wild-caught animals. These days there are good, reputable and ethical breeders of many animal species around that can supply animals. If the species is so rare that there aren't any good breeders around, then don't buy it. It might be rare because the animals don't survive well in captivity, or are hard to find in the wild. You don't want to contribute to either of those situations. In some instances, you can find both wild-caught and captive-bred animals for sale. While the captive-bred version will almost certainly be more expensive, the extra cost is not so great when you consider the overall lifetime costs of the animal. And how much money do you really save if you end up with a sick or dead animal?
  • If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That animal that you're getting for such a "great deal" might have been smuggled or be otherwise unhealthy.
  • If, for some reason, you are determined to get a wild-caught animal, make sure that it comes from a reputable source who imported the animal legally. Ask how it was caught, stored and transported. A good supplier should be able to tell you everything that happened from the time of capture to its arrival, or at least be able to find that out. If they don't know or don't care, walk away.

Human rabies in Missouri

A 55-year-old man in Missouri recently died of rabies.  He was the first human rabies victim in that state in close to 50 years. He was apparently bitten by a bat in mid-October and started to show signs of rabies about six months later.

This tragic incident highlights a few important points. All bats should be considered rabid until proven otherwise. Any bite from a bat should be considered rabies exposure. If this person had received treatment for rabies exposure, he almost certainly would not have developed rabies. Post-exposure treatment consists of a dose of antibodies against the rabies virus as well as a series of 5 vaccinations over four weeks.  These are normal vaccines given in the arm - not like the old horror stories of reaction-prone vaccines given in the abdomen.

  • Treat every bat as rabid. If you are bitten or may have been bitten (i.e. you were asleep in a room with a bat), you should consider yourself exposed unless the bat is tested and shown to be negative.
  • If you are exposed to rabies, get proper treatment. It's not a big deal and it can save your life. See this post for my experience with bat rabies.
  • Dogs and cats must be vaccinated against rabies. Even if they don't go outside they can still be exposed. It's also the law in most areas.
  • Bat-proof your house.  Seal up holes and crevices where bats may hide or through which they may get into your home.
  • If you wake up in a room and see a bat, don't let it out. It must be caught and tested for rabies, or you should receive post-exposure treatment. Bats can bite sleeping people without them noticing.
  • Wildlife should want to stay away from people. Wild animals that are acting strangely or do not appear afraid of people could be rabid. Stay away from such animals and report them to your local animal-control official.

More information about rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page, and in our rabies archives.

Cleaning up raccoon latrines

Raccoon latrines are a major source of eggs of the raccoon roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis.  Accidental ingestion of large numbers of eggs from these latrines can lead to a disease known as visceral larval migrans.  The most severe forms of this condition are known as ocular or neural larval migrans, which are damage to the eyes or brain/spinal cord (respectively) due to the roundworm larvae migrating through the body tissues.  The disease is very rare, but the consequences are very severe.  Previous Worms & Germs posts have discussed Baylisascaris and larval migrans in more detail.

Raccoons tend to form latrines - areas where they will return to deposit stool repeatedly.  In some ways this is handy, because it means you generally don't find raccoon stool all over the place.  On the other hand, the latrines themselves contain large amounts of stool, and along with that are large numbers of Baylisascaris eggs, not to mention bacteria and sometimes fungi.  So it is important to recognized latrines, particularly when they occur near your house, garden, or anywhere children may play.  Raccoons like to used flat, raised areas for latrines, such as roofs, decks, woodpiles, fallen logs or even large rocks, just to name a few.

Cleaning up raccoon latrines warrants some special precautions in order to avoid swallowing the roundworm eggs and to avoid spreading them around.  Recommendations include:


  • Wear rubber gloves, and always wash your hands thoroughly when you are done.
  • Wear disposable overboots, or rubber boots that can be scrubbed and disinfected.
  • Wear an N-95 rated particle mask if you are cleaning up a latrine in an enclosed space, such as an attic or crawl space.
  • Thoroughly wash your clothes with soap and hot water when you are done, and dry them completely.

Follow this link for detailed information on how to clean up a raccoon latrine.  A few of the more important points about dealing with these latrines include the following:

  • Avoid stirring up dust.  Misting the area with water first can help with this.
  • Double-bag and carefully dispose of any garbage/debris you remove from the area.
  • Most chemicals will not kill roundworm eggs.  Removing the eggs is usually the best option, but extreme heat will also kill eggs instantly.  Flaming contaminated areas can be effective, but contact your local fire department about local regulations and safety precautions before attempting to flame a latrine site.

Rabies in the US in 2007

A recent report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association by Jesse Blanton and colleagues provided a detailed report of rabies infection in the US in 2007. Here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Rabies was diagnosed in 7 258 animals and 1 person. That's a 4.6% increase in animals from 2006, but 2 fewer human cases.
  • 93% of cases were wildlife: 37% raccoons, 27% bats, 20% skunks, 7% foxes.
  • 0.8% of cases were in cattle and 0.6% were in horses.
  • 4% of cases were cats, with the largest numbers of feline cases in Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Georgia, Texas and Kansas.  Cat cases peaked in June and July.
  • 1.3% of cases were dogs, with the largest number of canine cases in Texas, Georgia and North Dakota. Dog cases did not appear to have a seasonal pattern.
  • Small numbers of a variety of other species were diagnosed, including pigs, wolves, opossums, bobcats, coyotes, otters, bears, deer, mongooses (in Puerto Rico), groundhogs and beavers.
  • The largest number of rabies cases occurred in Texas (969).
  • The infections that occurred were due to several rabies virus variants in circulation in North America, including raccoon rabies virus, skunk rabies virus, arctic fox rabies virus, bat rabies virus and Texas gray fox rabies virus.  In each region of the continent, one or more of these rabies virus variants may be more common.
  • No infections with canine rabies virus were identified. Dogs and coyotes were infected by other variants of the rabies virus, but not with the dog variant.  It is believed that dog-to-dog transmission of canine rabies virus no longer occurs in the US.
  • The one human rabies case in 2007 occurred in Minnesota, and was probably due to exposure to a rabid bat.

More information on rabies can be found on the  Worms & Germs Resources page, and in the rabies archives.


More about Echinococcus tapeworms in dogs

Echinococcus granulosus is a tapeworm of dogs that causes a condition known as hydatid disease or hydatidosis in humans.  The parasite is found in many parts of the world, and is very common in some regions of southern South America, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, southwestern Asia, northern Africa and Australia.  To the best of our knowledge, E. granulosus does not occur in southern Ontario, but it is present in other parts of Canada including the western provinces and northern Ontario.  A related, but much nastier, tapeworm called Echinococcus multilocularis is much less commonly found in North America.

A previous Worms & Germs post described what is known as the sylvatic cycle of Echinococcus granulosus, which is thought to be a common route of infection for dogs in Canada.  In the sylvatic cycle, dogs become infected with Echinococcus by eating the internal organs (usually lungs and liver) of wild game such as moose and caribou.  The dogs then pass tapeworm eggs in their stool, which can cause infection in other wild animals (thus continuing the cycle) or in people who accidentally swallow the eggs.  In humans, Echinococcus forms slow-growing cysts (called hydatid cysts) in different organs of the body which can be very difficult to remove or treat in some cases.

Echinococcus also has a pastoral or domestic cycle.  In this cycle, dogs acquire the parasite by eating the internal organs of infected sheep, and sometimes other livestock such as cattle and swine.  This cycle is potentially very important in areas where there is a lot of sheep farming.  In some areas of Latin America, 20-95% of sheep at slaughter may have evidence of hydatid cysts in their organs.

It is much more difficult to tell when a dog is infected with Echinococcus compared to other tapeworms such as Taenia or Dipylidium.  An adult Echinococcus is tiny - only a few milimetres long (see picture right), very unlike the long, stringy white tapeworms that most people picture.  Dogs can carry hundreds, even thousands of these tiny tapeworms without showing any signs of illness at all.  The eggs can sometimes be difficult to detect on fecal examinations, and when they are seen they cannot be differentiated from Taenia eggs.  Nonetheless, this is still the best way to detect infection, so fecal examinations should be performed regularly.


  • In areas where Echinococcus is known to exist, it's important to have your veterinarian perform fecal examinations on your dog's stool more frequently than the usual once-a-year, because of the serious zoonotic potential of this parasite.
  • Always wash your hands well after handling dog stools.
  • Do not let your dog eat uncooked meat, or the organs from farm animals or wild game.

For more information on Echinococcus, see Worms & Germs post entitled Echinococcus and hydatid disease - not your average tapeworm.  There is also information available on the Michigan State Department of Natural Resources site.

Lower photo credit: Ontario Veterinary College

Updated: Speaking of Baylisascaris...

This post has been updated with new information as of October 2, 2008.

An article was published on Sunday in a local Guelph newspaper about a 14-month-old child who has been battling infection with Baylisascaris larvae in a Hamilton (Ontario) hospital for the last two weeks.  This comes on the heals of a very recent Worms & Germs post about Baylisascaris procyonis - the raccoon roundworm.

The disease caused by migration of Baylisascaris larvae through the body - visceral larval migrans - is uncommonly diagnosed in North America, although it may be more common than we think because it is difficult to diagnose with certainty, and the signs in mild cases may be very non-specific.  The most severe form of the disease is called neural larval migrans, which occurs when the larvae migrate through the brain or spinal cord, as in this most recent case.

The parents of the toddler in the article, a toddler who is still blind and cannot sit up on his own as a result of his infection, have a message for parents: keep raccoons out of your yard and away from your house.  The disease may be rare, but the effects can be devastating, and the risk can be significantly reduced by a few simple steps:

  • Keep garbage in tightly-sealed containers.
  • Clear brush and seal openings in buildings where raccoons may nest or form latrines.
  • If you find raccoon stool or what appears to be a raccoon latrine on your property, clean it up very carefully.  Follow this link for more information on identifying and cleaning up raccoon latrines.
  • Always wash your hands well after you've been working outside in soil, dirt or water which could be contaminated with raccoon feces.

For more information, see the last Worms & Germs post about Baylisascaris.

Updated: Raccoon Roundworms - Baylisascaris procyonis

This post has been updated with new information as of October 2, 2008.

Raccoons, just like dogs and cats, can have roundworms in their intestine. Dogs are typically infected by the species Toxocara canis, and cats are infected by Toxocara cati. Raccoons are infected by a type of roundworm from a different genus, called Baylisascaris procyonis. There is one thing that all three of the parasites have in common – the larvae of these worms can infect humans, causing a condition called visceral larval migrans.

Dogs and cats are usually dewormed as puppies and kittens, and often as adults as well, which dramatically decreases the number of pets that are infected with roundworms. Raccoons are not so lucky – in the northern and northeastern parts of North America, over 70% of raccoons may be infected with Baylisascaris.  In Ontario, it has been estimated that only about 20-30% of raccoons are infected, but usually with high numbers of worms. In either case, younger raccoons are even more likely to be infected.  Infected animals may shed millions of parasite eggs in their stool, and the eggs can survive in the soil for months or even years.

After a few weeks, the eggs in the raccoon stool become infective. If a person swallows the eggs, they hatch in the small intestine and release larvae. These larvae can then burrow through the wall of the intestine and migrate through tissues all over the body, causing tissue damage and inflammation. The signs of illness are often not very specific, and may include things like fever, fatigue and nausea. If the larvae migrate through the brain or spinal cord, a person may develop neurological signs like loss of coordination and muscle control. This is called neural larval migrans, which is the most serious type of disease caused by these larvae.  If the larvae migrate through the eye, they can cause blindness.  This condition is known as ocular larval migrans.

There have been less than 25 cases of confirmed visceral larval migrans due to Baylisascaris in the USA as of 2003, but the condition is very hard to diagnose with certainty, and it is possible that many cases are mistaken for other illnesses. The disease is also very difficult to treat, and neurological damage from neural larval migrans is usually permanent, so the best thing to do is prevent infection in the first place. Here are some tips on avoiding Baylisascaris:

  • Avoid contact with raccoons. Many people think raccoons are cute, but they are wild animals. Raccoons are also a risk for transmission of rabies if a person is scratched or bitten. NEVER keep a raccoon as a pet.
  • Discourage raccoons from hanging around your house. Clear brush and seal access to basements and attics where raccoons may try to nest or form latrines. Keep garbage in tightly-closed garbage cans. Eliminate outdoor water sources.
  • Always wash your hands well with soap and water after working with soil (e.g. in the garden).
  • Clean up raccoon latrines.  This must be done very carefully - avoid getting any raccoon stool on your hands or clothes. The stool should be burned, buried or sent to a landfill. Clean the area where the stool was found with boiling water. Wash your hands very carefully when you’re done.  Follow this link for more detailed information on how to identify and clean up raccoon latrines.

Baylisascaris procyonis less commonly infects animal species other than raccoons, including skunks, and it has even been found in dogs.  It's important to have your dog's stool examined for parasite eggs on a regular basis (typically once or twice a year) and to follow your veterinarian's recommendations for deworming your dog.

More information about Baylisascaris is available on the CDC’s Baylisascaris Infection website.

Echinococcus and hydatid disease - not your average tapeworm

A previous Worms & Germs post talked about the (very low) zoonotic risk of the tapeworm most commonly found in dogs and cats, Dipylidium caninum. Dogs can also carry other species of tapeworm, such as Taenia pisiformis, which cannot be naturally transmitted to people. But dogs can also carry tapeworms from the genus Echinococcus, the most common of which is E. granulosus. Echinococcus multilocularis is much less common in North America, and can also be carried by cats.

In Canada, dogs tend to be exposed to E. granulosus when they eat certain animals, particularly wild herbivores like moose and caribou. In other parts of the world, eating sheep organs is the most common way dogs are exposed.  The immature form of the worm is found in the animal’s lungs, liver and other tissues. After being eaten by the dog, the worm matures in the intestine, and tapeworm eggs can soon be found in the dog’s stool. Tapeworm segments, as seen with Dipylidium infection, are usually not seen in the stool with Echinococcus. Under a microscope, it is possible to tell Dipylidium eggs from Echinococcus eggs, but it is not possible to tell Echinococcus eggs from Taenia eggs.

If a moose, caribou, sheep or another suitable “intermediate host” swallows the eggs from the dog stool, the parasite migrates through the animal’s body and forms cysts in various tissues which contain the immature form of the worm. If the animal dies or is killed, and a dog (or a wolf or coyote or related species) eats the cysts, the cycle begins again.

Unfortunately, humans can also be an “intermediate host” for these tapeworms. If a person ingests Echinococcus eggs from dog stool, the parasite can form cysts (called hydatid cysts) in many tissues and organs, including the liver, lungs, brain and heart. If the cysts are small and there are only a few, they may not cause any problems for years, and the person may never know they’re there. But as the cysts grow, they can get very large and start to interfere with the function of organs, or their size alone may be a problem, depending on where they are located. Treatment can be difficult – drugs are frequently not effective, and large problematic cysts may need to be surgically removed, if the surgery can be done safely. If a cyst bursts it can cause anaphylactic shock, which is very dangerous.

In Canada, Echinococcus infection and hydatid disease are most common in the western provinces. Nonetheless, everyone can take a few simple steps to help prevent exposure of people to Echinococcus:

  • Always wash your hands after handling dog stool, even if you use a plastic bag or a scoop to pick it up.
  • Your dog should have a fecal examination for intestinal parasites at least once per year, or more frequently if your dog is at increased risk of exposure to Echinococcus. If tapeworm eggs are identified, your veterinarian can prescribe medication to treat the infection.
    • Monthly heartworm preventatives that are effective against other intestinal worms are not effective against tapeworms!
  • Do not let your dog eat uncooked meat, especially the organs of sheep or wild game such as moose and caribou.

More information on Echinococcus and hydatid disease is available on the CDC’s Echinococcosis webpage.

Banning Bowser from the beach

Many dog owners love to take their canine companions to the beach with them during the summer. Unfortunately, other people (particularly non-dog owners) sometimes take exception to having Bowser on the beach. These individuals often cite potential infectious disease risks as a reason to ban dogs from the beach.

While there are some potential infectious disease risks associated with having pet dogs at the beach, they are minimal. Also, some simple, common-sense steps can greatly reduce the risks that do exist. The infectious disease risks from feral (wild) dogs and wildlife defecating in the sand are much greater.

  • The biggest health risk is actually probably from dog bites. Bites can be avoided through proper handling and training of dogs that are brought to public beaches.
  • Many different bacteria (e.g. Salmonella, Campylobacter) can be passed in the stool of even healthy dogs. Some of these can be harmful to people, but only under certain circumstances, such as if they are swallowed or if they contaminate an open wound.
    • Promptly picking up any stool passed by a dog greatly reduces the risk of significant contamination of the sand. Also, sunlight is an excellent “disinfectant” and will help kill any residual bacteria left behind.
  • Dogs can also have different kinds of zoonotic parasites in their stool.
    • Some of these parasites (e.g. roundworms, hookworms) are passed in a form that takes days to become infectious to people. So promptly removing dog stool from the beach minimizes the risk of transmission.
    • Other parasites, such as Giardia, are immediately infectious when passed in the stool, but must be swallowed to cause infection. Prompt removal of dog stool, good hand hygiene with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before eating, and avoiding sand contamination of food and drink should largely eliminate this risk as well.

Overall, the risks of having dogs on beaches are very low if people behave responsibly, specifically properly restraining their dogs and promptly picking up stool.

More information about zoonotic diseases associated with contamination of sand and Sandboxes is available on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Cows to vultures to dogs to rabies: unintended consequences

"Unintended consequences" are outcomes (usually negative) of a particular action that are unexpected. For example, in some areas, hospitals now receive decreased reimbursement for MRSA infections.  This policy was meant to help encourage hospitals to reduce MRSA infection rates. However, there are concerns are that this has actually lead to decreased MRSA testing (and potentially compromised patient care), because if the MRSA infection isn't documented, payment will not be withheld.

Unintended consequences can be found in many diverse areas. An interesting example was recently published in Ecological Economics and reported by the Toronto Star.  It described the unintended consequences that linked use of a cattle drug to rabies deaths in India. Here's here story:

  • Didofenac is a drug that was routinely used in cattle in India
  • The drug is apparently highly toxic to vultures
  • Vultures fed on cattle that died of natural causes, but that had didofenac in their bodies
  • Millions of vultures died, which led to a larger food supply for feral dogs
  • It was estimated that this lead to 5.5 million more feral dogs in India from 1992 to 2006
  • These additional dogs would have accounted for at least 38.5 million dog bites
  • Rabies is a serious problem in feral dogs in India
  • In India, 123 people die of rabies per 100 000 dog bites.

Putting these numbers together, the unintended consequences of didofenac use in cattle may have result in 47 000 human deaths from rabies and $34 billion in health care costs. There are a lot of assumptions in this report, but it is an interesting story and highlights the unpredictable nature of infectious diseases, and the varying effects that seemingly unrelated actions can have.

More information on rabies can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

"Black Death" in South Dakota - Plagued Prairie Dogs

While people often consider plague (aka the 'black death') to be something from history books, it is in fact still alive and well is some areas of the world. In North America, it is most common in the southwestern US but can extend into other regions.

Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is carried primarily by wild rodents.  Infection with Yersina pestis can cause bubonic plague (swollen lymph glands), septicemia plague (bloodstream infection) or pneumonic plague (pneumonia/lung infection).  An average of 13 human cases are diagnosed in the US every year.  In today's modern times, the infection can be effectively treated with antibiotics, but if left untreated the mortality rate is still 50-90%. The Canadian Notifiable Disease Database has never received a report of plague in a human.

Plague has been reported in a variety of animal species, including cats and dogs. However, dogs seem to be relatively resistant to the infection compared to cats. Yersinia pestis gets from rodents to other animals and people mainly by flea bites. Fleas become infected by biting an infected animal, and can then pass on the infection by biting another animal or person.  It is also possible for plague to be transmitted by direct  contact with infected animals, but this is less common.

A recent report described an outbreak of plague in prairie dogs in western South Dakota.  There is  concern that the disease could also affect the endangered black-footed ferret in that area. Plague almost always kills prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets almost exclusively eat prairie dogs.

When plague is present in wild animals in a region, there is always a risk of transmission to people and pets through contact with infected animals or bites from infected fleas.  Some basic measures to reduce the risk of plague exposure in areas where the disease exists in wild animals are:
  • Keep cats indoors
  • Talk to your veterinarian about a flea control program for your pets
  • Never touch wild animals, especially sick or dead ones
  • Don't keep wild animals as pets
  • Try to keep wild animals away from your pets
Photo: Scanning electron micrograph of an Oriental Rat Flea, Xenopsylla cheopis.
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) / Janice Carr)

"Pet" bat bites child

A woman from Kansas was cited for keeping exotic pets within city limits after her son was bitten by one of the family's pet bats. The bats were confiscated and will be tested for rabies.

Some animals make good pets, some are mediocre and some are completely inappropriate. Bats are in the last category. Bats are the main vector for rabies virus in North America and they do not have to look sick to be carrying rabies. Bats can bite when being handled and bites are often very small, so they are not always taken care of or even noticed. A person not reporting a seemingly harmless bat bite is a common history in human rabies cases.

Even if rabies didn't exist, keeping pet bats would still be a bad idea.  Bats are very difficult to care for  properly, and rarely survive for long in captivity, except in well-run zoos with excellent facilities and very knowledgeable caretakers. 

More information on rabies is available on our Resources page.

Rabies awareness month

June has been declared Rabies Awareness Month in New York State. The focus of the occasion is on education, particularly with respect to bats.  Since 1990, 38 of 41 human rabies cases in the US  involved bats. Approximately one-third of bats tested in New York are positive for rabies. In 2007, 559 animals were confirmed as infected with rabies in New York, and  more than 3000 people were treated for rabies exposure. Further, more than 1400 New Yorkers undergo treatment each year following exposure to bats that were not caught and tested. State health personnel are emphasizing the need to catch and test bats if people have had contact with them, or when a bat has been present in a house with a sleeping person. They have produced a video on how to safely catch a bat in the house.

Important points to remember about rabies and bats are:
  • Never touch a bat.
  • Consider every bat to have rabies until proven otherwise.
  • If you have slept in a house overnight with a bat, you are considered exposed. Unless the bat is caught and tested (and shown to be negative) you should undergo post-exposure treatment.
  • If you or your pet may have been in contact with a bat, try to catch it (safely) so that it can be tested for rabies.
  • Vaccinate your pets against rabies, even if they never leave the house.
More information on rabies and rabies prevention can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Photo: Little brown bat (M.B. Fenton)

Dogs and dead birds

As the owner of a dog that loves to roll in (and eat) anything she finds, I certainly understand the questions that I get about risks to dogs from dead birds. Eating a dead bird is certainly not an appealing thought to us, but overall, the risks to a dog are pretty low. The greatest potential problem is likely gastroenteritis, often referred to as ‘garbage-gut’, which typically causes diarrhea (with or without vomiting) after "dietary indiscretion" (i.e. a dog eating things it shouldn't have). Another concern is Salmonella. Some birds carry Salmonella in their intestinal tracts and dogs could become infected from eating them. This is a bigger problem in cats that hunt birds - salmonellosis in outdoor cats is also referred to as songbird fever. West Nile virus can cause death in birds, especially species such as bluejays and crows, which may then be found by your dog. The risk of transmission of West Nile virus to dogs from eating dead birds is presumably very low. Further, this disease is very rare in dogs and they appear to be quite resistant to the virus.

  • Try to prevent your pet from eating/touching dead birds.
  • If your pet develops diarrhea after eating a dead bird, it is probably not a health concern for anyone else but Salmonella infection is possible, so consider taking your dog to the veterinarian. This is especially important if the dog appears sick (i.e. besides vomiting and diarrhea, the dog also is not acting like itself) or if there are people in the household that are at higher risk for getting sick from bugs like Salmonella (i.e. infants, people with weakened immune systems). All diarrhea should be considered potentially infectious to other animals and people.  Extra care should be taken around affected pets and their stool, including extra attention to hand washing, and disinfecting the site of any "accidents" that occur in the house.
  • In some areas where bird testing is performed for West Nile virus or avian influenza surveillance, public health personnel will collect dead birds. Contact your public health department if you are unsure what is done in your region.
If you must move or remove a dead bird, precautions should be taken. These include:
  • Do not touch dead birds with bare hands.
  • Use heavy-duty, leak-proof gloves to place the bird in a leak-proof plastic bag. Alternatively, fold two bags over your hand and use the bag to cover your hand when picking up the bird (like people do when poop-scooping), or use a shovel to place the bird in a bag.
  • Double bag the bird.
  • If the bird is not being collected for testing, contact your local waste management agency regarding disposal instructions.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you're done.

Rabies kills...vaccinate your pets!

A recent report from South Carolina stated that 3 cats were euthanized because they were exposed to a rabid raccoon. One of the cats was acting strangely and may have actually  been infected with rabies (it is being tested). The other two cats appeared healthy, but none of them had been vaccinated for rabies, so the only options were to euthanize the animals or quarantine them for 6 months. In South Carolina, such a quarantine entails keeping the animals at a veterinary clinic or in a cage in an isolated room or yard, 24 hour a day. The owners did not want to quarantine the cats so they chose to have them euthanized instead. If the cats had been vaccinated, a much shorter and easier quarantine period could have been applied. Rabies vaccination is a cheap, easy and effective way of protecting pets and the public.

If you care about your family and your pets, vaccinate you pets against rabies.

More information about rabies is available in our Resources page.

Keep the 'wild' in 'wildlife'

Sixteen people in South Carolina are undergoing rabies post-exposure treatment after having contact with a rabid baby raccoon. Additionally, 20 of their pets are undergoing quarantine.

Wildlife should be left in the wild. While some wild animals, especially babies, are hard to resist, little good usually comes from intervention of the general public. This is particularly true when well meaning people ‘rescue’ baby wildlife. Often, ‘orphaned’ wildlife are not orphans; the parents are hiding nearby and would have returned. Few animal facilities are properly equipped or licensed to properly deal with wildlife, and these ‘rescued’ orphans often end up being euthanized. Some people try to nurse these animals themselves but few can do it properly. It’s also illegal in many areas. Add that to the obvious risk of rabies, as highlighted here, and it should be clear that wildlife should be left alone. It’s also a good reminder of the need to vaccinate your pets because rabies exposure can occur in many different ways. The pets in this situation are reportedly under 45 day quarantine, which is certainly not something you want to do, but is much better than what would happen in many jurisdictions in the case of rabies exposure of an unvaccinated pet (long strict quarantine or euthanasia).

Baby raccoons are very cute and hard to resist, but like many other forms of temptation, danger, in this case in the form of infectious diseases, can lurk just around the corner. More information on rabies is available in our Resources section.