An abstract for the upcoming CSTE (Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists) conference in California describes a rare but concerning case of Brucella canis infection in a child. All I have to go by is the abstract (since the meeting hasn’t happened yet and I won’t be there anyway), but it provides an interesting outline.

Brucella canis is a bacterium that is (not surprisingly, given the name) associated with dogs.  It’s present in dogs internationally, with higher rates of infection in strays and shelter dogs. It can cause a variety of problems in dogs, most often abortion, stillbirth and birth of weak puppies, but also things like reproductive failure and genital inflammation in males, and diskospondylitis (a kind of back problem). After a dog gets infected, the bacterium can localize to genital tissues, where it tends to hang out, resulting in intermittent shedding of B. canis in urine, vaginal discharge, fetal fluids, semen and, to a lesser extent, some other tissues. Humans can then be exposed via contact with these fluids. The main risk to humans comes from handling breeding dogs, particularly female dogs that have aborted puppies. However, people seem to be relatively resistant to B. canis infection, and there are actually only a small number of reports of human infections with this bacterium.

The risk to average pet owners is very low, but as this report shows, low doesn’t mean zero. This abstract deals with an infection in a 3-year-old child from New York city. The family had acquired a Yorkshire terrier puppy from a local store in March 2012. As is expected, there was close contact between the child and the puppy.

Near the end of April, the child was taken to an emergency room because of fever and difficulty breathing. Bacterial infection wasn’t the main suspect and he was discharged without antibiotics (presumably having improved from how he was at the time of admission). However, a blood culture was collected and it came back positive for Brucella canis. While the boy had been doing well, he was treated with 45 days of antibiotics to try to make sure the bacterium was eliminated, since it can cause chronic problems.

In a step that’s too often overlooked in zoonotic disease occurrences, there was an investigation of the source. That’s not surprising since this is a rare and concerning bacterium, and it’s pretty clear that pet contact tracing is required. The puppy was healthy but the bacterium was isolated from its blood. Because of the test result, the puppy was euthanized. (There’s no mention of whether this was at the owner’s request or based on the recommendation of public health personnel.)

The source of the puppy was a major concern, since it’s important to make sure that there aren’t other infected puppies around. The puppy came from a "commercial breeding facility" in Iowa – yet another instance of the potential for widespread national and international distribution of pathogens from large commercial pet operations. The facility was quarantined but there’s no more information in the abstract about whether other positive animals were found, whether infected puppies may have been sent elsewhere in the country, and what measures were taken to correct the problem.

A littermate of the New York puppy was sold by the same store. It also tested positive for B. canis and was treated.

This is a rare incident, but it highlights some points for me:

– Large commercial breeding facilities for dogs are unnecessary and create increased risk of disease in animals and by extension people. Yes, this could occur with a small private breeder, but the more animals, the more risk of infectious disease, and the larger the facility, the larger the potential impact should a disease issue develop.

– Proper counseling of people whose pets are diagnosed with a zoonotic pathogen is needed. I don’t know the story at all about why the first puppy was euthanized, but it might have been avoidable. What to do with animals that are healthy but shedding potentially concerning pathogens is a tough area to address. That’s particularly true for a bug like B. canis, since it can be hard to eliminate.

– Good communication is needed between the medical field, public health, veterinary medicine and the public. It’s hard to say how smoothly this investigation actually went, but it shows a good response to a rare but potentially serious problem.

– People that sell animals need to keep accurate contact information from purchasers. It’s good to see that they were able to track down the owners of the original puppy’s infected littermate. Contact tracing is important with infectious diseases and it can be exceedingly difficult at times.

– There’s an inherent risk in pet ownership. We know that and have to accept it. The child was high risk because of his age. That doesn’t mean we don’t let kids have pets, but we have to understand the risk and use some basic hygiene practices to reduce that risk. Would it have had any impact on this case? Who knows, but it never hurts to improve.