AKRON, Ohio - A virus has been killing dogs throughout the country over the past several weeks.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture, which has received calls from veterinarians and anxious dog owners throughout the state, has warned that the illness can kill in as little as 48 hours from the onset of symptoms, said Erica Pitchford Hawkins, communications director for the department.
Pathologists are looking at a virus diagnosed in several dogs that died in California in the spring that showed symptoms similar to animals that died in Cincinnati, Hawkins said Thursday.
"The theory they are working on is the 'circovirus' that they are trying to test for. We haven't gotten anything positive back yet," she said.
"Until we get that, we still don't know for sure," she said, and cautioned pet owners to wait until test results are final.
Circovirus is a novel virus (meaning one not seen before) from "a family of viruses that has not been known to cause disease in dogs prior to this year," said Melanie Butera, a Canal Fulton veterinarian and owner of Elm Ridge Animal Hospital.
Butera was the first area veterinarian to report to the state of Ohio that she saw possibly as many as four canine patients with the ailment two weeks ago.
Circovirus was so recently discovered "there is not much at all information about how it is getting around," Hawkins said.
The Akron, Ohio, Beacon Journal published an article about the virus last week and has heard from dozens of people who suspect their pets might have contracted the illness, or recovered or died from it.
Calls and emails have come in from worried pet owners living in a dozen states from the East Coast to the Great Plains who say their animals are displaying similar symptoms to the Ohio dogs.
Three dogs in the Cincinnati area died and a dozen more were sickened last month with the illness. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea and vomiting, extreme lethargy, neurological problems, a lack of appetite and other maladies.
"There are countless causes of vomiting and diarrhea in dogs, even bloody diarrhea," Butera said.
But the illness she has seen in the past few weeks is markedly different, she said.
"What made these cases unique is what the pathologist terms 'acute necrotizing vasculitis.' This is when the blood vessels become suddenly damaged and fluid begins leaking out of the vessels," Butera said. "Because of this, the cases I know of did not just have vomiting and bloody diarrhea, they also developed fluid around their lungs and in the abdomen."
As the damage to the vessels continued, she saw hemorrhages, physiological shock and blood clots being thrown into tissues, once with fatal results, she said.
Butera's patients shared some or all of the symptoms as the Cincinnati dogs. Three of her canine patients survived after treatment; one died, she said.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture connected the cases when Butera contacted state officials after seeing two dogs with the same symptoms come into her clinic at the same time two weeks ago.
The department requested she send blood samples along with necropsy samples from the dog that died.
Butera said the necropsy samples were sent to the University of California for comparison to samples of animals diagnosed with circovirus.
"They isolated this unusual virus from this dog's tissues. The signs the Ohio Department of Agriculture says they are seeing are consistent with the unique signs and post-mortem findings this dog had," Butera said of the California cases.
It will be several weeks before scientists can determine if the Canal Fulton, Cincinnati and California dogs all died from the same illness, Hawkins said.
Scientists have ruled out a common pathogenic bacterial cause, such as salmonella, E. coli or distemper, based on blood samples, Hawkins said.
Ticks have also been suggested as the cause and method of transmission of the disease.
"I have not had any of my vets talk about ticks with me. Ticks can carry a lot of different kinds of disease, but I've not had my vets say that there is a suspicion that this particular illness is related to ticks," Hawkins said.
Butera is cautioning her patients to wait until a definitive cause has been established before they panic.
"Until the investigation by the pathologists is complete, we will not know whether or not what we saw is from a virus, bacteria, or toxin, etc., or even if these cases are related to each other," she said. "The only advice I can give people right now is just common sense:
"If your dog is showing signs of illness, no matter what the cause, do not hesitate to seek veterinary care."