Sleeping pupA vague but potentially interesting report from New Jersey outlines a request for information about pet deaths in the area.

The Cumberland County [New Jersey] Health Department is asking for the public’s help in collecting data on reports of what it calls “sudden and unusual illness” among dogs in the county.

  • Perhaps the most interesting and important part is that the Health Department is leading the charge. Too often, there’s little interest from the human-health types in situations like these.

Officials say sometimes these illnesses are chronic and sometimes they can come on suddenly. The county health department, in collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Health Zoonotic Disease Unit, announced on Friday that it is collecting information from those dog owners that feel their pet’s recent illness falls into this category. Although most of the concerns have been regarding dogs, the county officials said in a news release, they would not exclude information regarding severe and unusual illnesses in cats. Health officials say they encourage pet owners to consult with their veterinarian if they see signs of their dog or cat falling suddenly ill.  Signs of illnesses in dogs can included lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, refusal to eat and muscle weakness.

According to a health department spokesman, “a handful of dogs” have been reported ill, mostly in the Millville area.

In the past week three of those have died. Among them was one dog which was older and displayed symptoms of pneumonia.

The health department is asking for the public’s health in gathering information as a proactive measure to determine whether, in fact, there is a widespread problem.

While the department is currently focusing on the collection of information regarding recent illnesses in dogs, we encourage residents to always reach out to a veterinarian regarding any unusual and sudden illnesses any type of pet exhibits. 

Reports like this come out in the press occasionally. These can be:

  1. True new problems
  2. Outbreaks caused by existing and well know pathogens
  3. Misinformation or over-reaction

All of these happen, but #3 is probably the most common, followed by #2. I often get involved in investigating reports like these, and it’s usually frustrating (and fruitless) because of a lack of clear information. So, from that standpoint, getting the word around to as many people as possible is very useful.

The information that’s provided is pretty vague in this case, probably because they have little information to go on.  Unfortunately, this can ramp up unneeded concern because pretty much any sick dog or cat could fit this description.

While the information is vague and the response isn’t clear, this type of approach can be useful if owners are paying attention and officials are collecting good information. Early response is key to controlling infectious diseases, and it’s much better to over-react occasionally than to wait until there’s definitely a problem, at which point control may be much more difficult.

Key actions for a situation like this are:

  • Raising awareness: this report is a good start.
  • Collecting information about sick animals (what’s wrong, where they have been, what testing has been done): this requires some work but it sounds like they’ll be tracking at least some of this.
  • Collecting samples for testing to identify a cause: this is where things sometimes fall off the rails. Diagnostic testing can be expensive and often we don’t have many test results to evaluate. That’s particularly true when testing may not influence care of the animal.  Most people aren’t into paying for testing for the “greater good” if it won’t help their pet.
  • Engaging experts in veterinary infectious diseases and infection control: this is important to help determine potential causes, identify potential control measures and figure out how to arrive at a diagnosis (and maybe identify a new cause).