Streptococcus equi subspecies zooepidemicus (usually just called Strep zooepidemicus) is a common cause of infection in horses. It is an "opportunist" that is often found in healthy horses, but which can cause disease in certain situations. While horses are the natural host of this bacterium, sporadic infections and outbreaks are occasionally reported in dogs at cats, particularly in shelters or other crowded situations. Severe (including fatal) pneumonia can occur, as was reported in a recent outbreak in a humane society in Ottawa. Rarely, S. zooepidemicus can also cause infections in people.

A report in the Journal of Medical Microbiology (Abbott et al) describes a serious S. zooepidemicus infection in a person, that was traced back to a dog. The dog lived on a farm that also had horses. It developed pneumonia and S. zooepidemicus was isolated from its respiratory tract. The dog was treated and recovered. However, the dog owner also became ill with fever, headache, a stiff neck and general malaise. Penicillin was prescribed, but the person’s condition did not improve and he/she ended up in the hospital. Streptococcus zooepidemicus was also isolated from this person’s nose and throat.  When the dog and human strains were compared using molecular tests, they were related. An investigation of the farm was performed, and while all the horses present at the time were negative for S. zooepidemicus, the bacterium was isolated from a healthy dog.

This is a rare situation and one that shouldn’t result in too much concern. It does highlight a couple points that are good to remember:

  • Getting cultures is very important for obtaining a diagnosis.
  • Animal contact and pet health should be considered whenever someone is sick with a potential infectious disease. Physicians need to know whether their patients have contact with animals. They need to be told if a sick animal is present so they can consider whether the pet and human illness might be related. Knowing to what someone may have been exposed might speed up diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
  • Rare things are rare, but they happen. We shouldn’t focus on rare events but we have to keep our minds open and recognize that strange things happen with infectious diseases.