5 Things You Need to Know About the “Circovirus Outbreak”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang| Pet360.com

"A scary new disease is killing dogs!" proclaims headlines across the country. "A new virus is emerging and dogs are dying. Doctors are baffled." Within the space of just a few short days, fanned by the flames of fear and robust social media involvement, the dire news of circovirus spread….well, like a virus.

The only problem is, as so often happens in these sorts of cases, rumor became fact long before the actual facts were known. The Ohio Department of Agriculture is now trying its best to do damage control and ensure the veterinary and dog owning community gets accurate information, but the genie's out of the bottle. So what really happened?

A number of dogs staying at an Ohio boarding/ doggie daycare facility came down with severe signs of disease. Three of those dogs died. The dogs initially presented with bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and lethargy, but in several cases progressed to vasculitis. Vasculitis causes inflammation of the blood vessels, and is overall a very serious problem.

Recalled pet food was quickly eliminated as the cause. Because the initial signs resembled clinical signs sometimes seen with Salmonella, people speculated the illnesses might be related to a recent pet food recall. Within a day, records showed the food used at the facility was not involved in the recall.

The local veterinary community acted proactively. Realizing this cluster of unusual cases could indicate a larger problem, veterinarians treating the cases quickly reached out to each other, to specialists, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

Circovirus was not found in all of the cases. Again, the idea that these dogs died specifically from circovirus is premature. Samples from three infected dogs were sent to UC Davis in California, the nearest facility with the ability to test for this virus. Of the three samples, only one has tested positive for circovirus.

We still don't know what caused these dogs to become ill. We do know circovirus was present in at least some of the dogs, and we do know that in pigs the presence of this virus can worsen the effects of other types of pathogens, which is why everyone is so nervous. What we do not yet know is whether or not this virus is directly responsible for disease in these dogs.

But if the fact remains that dogs got very ill and died, shouldn't we worry? Why does this matter? It matters because the rush to blame circovirus could lead us to miss another problem, if one exists. Perhaps a vector borne illness, like a tick-borne disease. Or maybe another, different virus. Or maybe it's circovirus in conjunction with a second pathogen. Rushing to judgment matters because finding the correct answer is vital if we want to really understand what caused these dogs to die. Rest assured that the finest infectious disease specialists in the nation are working hard to identify the cause, and we will all share the information as soon as we have it.

For now, I encourage everyone to take a breath and hang tight. Remember, the number of affected dogs so far is very small, and I hope it remains that way. It very well might. In the meantime, owners should be aware of the clinical signs these dogs exhibited: vomiting, lethargy, bloody diarrhea, and a rapid worsening of their symptoms. Prompt veterinary attention was key to those dogs who survived. If anything about your dog causes you concern, please do call your vet right away. That is what they are there for.

Have you heard about canine circovirus? Do you think the media did an accurate job in getting the word out?

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