Dog deaths in Cincinnati: Michigan vet Dr. Lindsay Ruland has unusual theory for cases there

She suspects owners, dogs are infecting each other

CINCINNATI – Dogs are dying in Michigan with the same violent symptoms as the three that died in Cincinnati in August, and experts still don’t know what’s killing them.

The state agency investigating the Ohio cases just ruled out its primary suspect and is starting over in search of the cause.

But a Michigan veterinarian has an unusual theory for the cases there:

She thinks humans are making dogs sick – and vice versa.

Dr. Lindsay Ruland says six dogs have died at her Emergency Veterinary Hospital near Ann Arbor in just the past month, coinciding with the start of human flu season. And dozens more have been sick with the same symptoms - severe vomiting, bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Ruland doesn’t think it’s just coincidence.

“In the majority of cases, owners have been sick with flu-like symptoms, or someone in their house has been sick, or they worked in a hospital or somewhere where people are sick,” Ruland said in a phone interview with WCPO on Monday.

“What I’ve seen is owners are sick a week, two weeks prior to their animals getting sick,” she said.

Not only that, Ruland said, workers at her veterinary hospital have gotten the same symptoms after treating the sick dogs.

“I’ve been sick for three weeks now. The staff is sick. I even took it home to my two boys,” she said.

“We’ve had some very strange happenings up here,” Ruland said.

"I'm focusing on this as an influenza-type virus or bacteria, but I suspect it's a virus."

So far, Michigan state veterinary officials are not buying her theory, Ruland said.

But she says she is willing to pay for testing herself to find out if she’s wrong or right.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture is also skeptical.

“We didn’t see any indication of that in Ohio,” communications director Erica Hawkins told WCPO from Columbus.

But the ODA hasn't solved the puzzle yet, either.

A few weeks ago, the ODA thought it had a good lead on the three deaths associated with The Pet Spot kennel in Norwood and one more in northeast Ohio. Those dogs – and others that survived after emergency treatment – had the same symptoms as the Michigan dogs.

But the ODA now says tests for circovirus, usually found in pigs and birds but newly discovered in dogs this year,  have all but eliminated that as the singular cause.

“The tests ruled out circovirus as being the primary culprit. We’re not pursuing that anymore,” Hawkins said.

Samples from sick Ohio dogs were sent to the University of California-Davis laboratory, which identified the first case of canine circovirus in April.

Only two of the 36 samples were suspected positive for circovirus, Hawkins said.

“It’s possible (circovirus) is a contributing agent in some cases,” she said.

So the ODA is planning to re-test the samples.

“We’re just starting to develop a test. We’re really not sure what we’re looking for. We’re going to run them and see if anything gets hits across the board,” Hawkins said.

Earlier tests ruled out more common causes like salmonella and parvovirus and even contaminated dog food, the ODA has said.

In Michigan, the  Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health confirmed that two cases of canine circovirus had been identified in the state. But it said the dogs were infected with other viruses so it couldn’t tell if circovirus caused their illness.

But Ruland said she started seeing similar cases in Michigan dogs last year, and that’s when she started getting suspicious.

“All too often the owners were sick with similar symptoms. And it has come back worse this year,” she said.

While animals commonly infect humans through bacteria, she conceded it would be “very rare” for humans and dogs to be infecting each other by viruses.

“Most viruses don’t readily cross. They’re normally species-limited. It would definitely not be normal. But we know viruses mutate all the time. Is this a virus that somehow mutated?” Ruland said.

“Porcupine circovirus in pigs is known to transmit to humans,” she said.

The state of Michigan hasn’t been very helpful, so she is paying to test her theory, Ruland said.

“I went to the state last year. I haven’t got much assistance from the state,” Ruland said. “The state said I had to prove the connection first. So I’m going to the private sector for testing.”

She would not say how much she was paying out of her own pocket, but she did explain why it's so important to her.

“I just think I’ve gotten really attached to my patients and it’s gotten too difficult emotionally. I want to try to prevent this from happening again,” Ruland said. “And there’s the human illness factor, too.”

The ODA may not subscribe to Ruland’s theory, but the Ohio agency and the Michigan vet don’t seem too far apart in their search. 

“We’re not really sure what we’ve got at this point,” Ruland said. “We don’t know that much about canine circovirus. Is it something that works with other pathogens? Is it a red-herring?”

Ohio state veterinarian Tony Forshey recently told the American Veterinary Medical Association that the ODA was looking at "the very distinct possibility

that this is a co-infection, not just one organism."

Listen to Forshey’s interview with the AVMA at http://www.avmamedia.org/display.asp?sid=545&tid=207&NAME=Veterinarians_investigate_mystery_canine_illness_in_Ohio

Two dogs from northeast Ohio recently got sick with similar symptoms after their owners brought them to the Cincinnati area, according to the vet who treated them, Dr. Melanie Butera of Canal Fulton. But she said they were not boarded here and she did not find any connection to the deaths and illnesses here.

Otherwise, no new Cincinnati cases have been reported since August.

The ODA recommends that owners contact their vets immediately if their dogs have violent vomiting, bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain or become lethargic.

See FAQ about canine circovirus from the American Veterinary Medical Association at https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Pages/Circovirus-in-Dogs-Frequently-Asked-Questions.aspx

See a report on the Michigan cases of circovirus at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine website at http://www.cvm.msu.edu/about-the-college/news-and-events/news/canine-circovirus-testing-available-at-msu-diagnostic-center-for-population-and-animal-health
 

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