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An unidentified illness is killing dogs in Michigan, officials say


In an undated image provided by Dave Eagle, Smokey, a 10-month-old silver Labrador retriever who experienced symptoms that left him lethargic. An unidentified illness has been sickening and killing dozens of dogs in Michigan in recent weeks, puzzling veterinarians who are racing to determine whether it’s contagious and if there are treatments, local officials said.

By Eduardo Medina and Remy Tumin


An unidentified illness has been sickening and killing dozens of dogs in Michigan in recent weeks, puzzling veterinarians who are racing to determine whether it’s contagious and if there are treatments, local officials said.


Most of the affected dogs have been younger than 2. The Otsego County Animal Shelter in Gaylord, Michigan, reported that the illness had killed more than 20 dogs in the county, some within a few days of showing symptoms. Those symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and bloody stools, according to a statement from Melissa FitzGerald, the director of the shelter.


FitzGerald said that while veterinarians were still not sure what the cause of the illness is, “the best guess” is that it is a new strain of parvovirus, a disease that particularly affects puppies and causes bouts of bloody diarrhea and vomiting.


The state has found some evidence of parvovirus — which spreads from dog to dog, strikes in their gastrointestinal tracts and can be lethal. But when the dogs have been tested for that virus at the clinic, the tests have come back negative, FitzGerald said.


“We have not spoken to this until now because we really don’t know anything,” she said. “The only thing is to make sure your pets are vaccinated and, at the first sign of illness, get to the veterinarian.”


There have been reports of infections in northern and central Michigan, according to the Otsego County Animal Shelter. Rudi Hicks, the animal control director in Clare County, Michigan, told the Clare County Cleaver last week that there was no treatment for the dogs’ ailments yet.


She advised residents in the area: “Keep your dogs home. Don’t take them to dog parks. Don’t walk them.”


Dr. Nora Wineland, Michigan’s state veterinarian, said officials were at the beginning stages of investigating the “parvo-like” illness but the state’s laboratory only had four specimens to analyze, some of which did test positive for the parvovirus.


“We’re really in the early states of trying to understand what is going on,” Wineland said. “It could be that the test was unable to detect the parvovirus, or it was too early in the infection perhaps, or it could be it’s a different strain. These are some of the things we’re thinking about.”


Pet owners and clinicians are not required to report parvovirus to the state, and much of the reporting so far has been anecdotal, Wineland said. She said it was “definitely not time to panic” but for pet owners to make sure their dogs are up-to-date on their schedule of shots.


“If a dog is vaccinated, they will be in a much better place and less likely to get severe disease and need supportive treatment to keep them alive,” she said.


Parvovirus is “very hardy” and “highly transmissible,” Wineland said, especially if dogs have a questionable vaccination history or are too young to be vaccinated. Parvovirus is a fecal-oral illness and spreads through dogs’ waste so it is especially important for them to be fully vaccinated, she said.


“Cleaning up after your pet protects the next pet,” she said. “Dogs love to sniff that.”


Dave Eagle, a Gaylord resident, said his 10-month-old silver Labrador retriever named Smokey, who is fully vaccinated, began showing symptoms about three weeks ago. Instead of Smokey being his usual “ball of energy” self, he was lethargic and vomiting. “One day we woke up and he did not want to do a whole lot,” Eagle said. “Being a 10-month old Lab and being very energetic, he was not with it.”


What followed were multiple visits to Smokey’s veterinarian and the veterinary hospital at Michigan State University, where he spent the day receiving “just about every test known to man,” including an ultrasound, and nothing came up. Doctors put him on a special diet of chicken and rice, and Smokey is now bouncing back, Eagle said.


“It’s been over $2,500 in vet bills, plus time away from work to travel to vets,” he said. “Not to mention the stress and lack of sleep dealing with it all. It’s been stressful, especially for my kids. He’s their best bud.”


“It’s very weird. We don’t know what it is but it’s got people on edge,” he added.


Eagle urged pet owners to “get help immediately” if they are worried about their dog. “The faster you take care of it, the better off you are,” he said.

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