Is There Reason to Panic Over New Dog Virus?

Published: September 25, 2013
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I can’t decide if this post is a good idea or not, so let me say from the offset, “There is no reason for panic.” I don’t even know if there is reason for concern, which explains my hesitation. But, the news is so widespread at this point that I feel like it would be a disservice, or at least a glaring omission, if I didn’t bring up the topic of the recent illnesses and deaths of several dogs in Ohio that may or may not be associated with canine circovirus.

(How’s that for a wishy-washy intro?)

According to the Ohio Department of Agriculture:

The department’s Division of Animal Health has been taking reports of severe dog illnesses in several parts of the state for the past three weeks [now longer]. Affected dogs have exhibited similar symptoms including vomiting, bloody diarrhea, weight loss and lethargy. Although there are several known causes of these symptoms in dogs, it is generally believed that there is an unknown contributor to the cases.

As part of its investigation, the department also announced the presence of canine circovirus in a fecal sample taken from an ill dog in the state. This is the first laboratory detection of canine circovirus in Ohio. Further work is being done to verify the significance of this finding.

“The laboratory confirmation is important because the virus is newly isolated, however we are not prepared at this time to confirm that canine circovirus is the cause of the dog illnesses,” said State Veterinarian Dr. Tony Forshey.

Reports vary as to the number of animals involved, but it looks like it is in the single digits in a handful of locations (as I said, there’s no reason to panic).

My first response upon hearing about all this was something along the lines of “circovirus … circovirus … I’ve heard that name before, but where? Oh right, pigs.”

Obviously, I was in need of a bit of a refresher course. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has put together an excellent FAQ on circoviruses, and I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing on their website. Unlike some media reports that seem to want to do nothing more than fan the flames of pet owner alarm and raise their ratings in the process, the AVMA primer is a level-headed explanation of what we do and do not know about what is going on. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: What are circoviruses?

A: Circoviruses are small viruses that have been known to infect pigs and birds. They are also known to survive well in the environment once shed from affected animals. Porcine circoviruses are very common throughout the world. Porcine circovirus 2 can cause postweaning multisystemic wasting syndrome in 2-4 month old piglets, resulting in weight loss, poor growth and high death rates. Although porcine circoviruses were first identified more than 30 years ago, there is still much unknown about the viruses. Circovirus can also infect birds, causing beak and feather disease in psittacine birds (such as parrots, parakeets, budgies and cockatiels), infectious anemia in chickens, and deadly infections in pigeons, canaries and finches.

Q: What is canine circovirus/dog circovirus?

A: The circovirus identified in dogs shares more similarity to porcine circovirus than to the avian circovirus, but it is not the same as porcine circovirus. This canine circovirus was& first reported in June 2012 as part of a genetic screening of canine samples for new viruses (Kapoor et al 2012). Circovirus was detected in 2.9% of canine sera collected for routine serological testing. In April 2013, a similar virus was detected in a California dog that presented to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine for worsening vomiting (containing blood) and diarrhea. PCR tests on dogs with and without clinical disease indicate a prevalence rate of between 2.9-11.3%. The data suggest that this new virus, either alone or as a co-infection with other pathogens (disease-causing organisms, such as bacteria and viruses), might contribute to dog illness and deaths. However, the authors also reported that circovirus was identified in the stool of 14 out of 204 healthy dogs, suggesting that infection with circovirus does not always result in illness.

As the AVMA says, “There is still much to learn about this newly identified virus, including its role in disease.” In the meantime, keep calm and carry on.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Kotzur Yang Creative / Shutterstock