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K-State veterinarian issues canine 'toxic shock' advisory

By Keener Tippin II


A "mystery disease" that killed a number of racing greyhounds throughout the United States in 1992 and struck again earlier this year in greyhounds and other breeds, has resulted in veterinarians at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine issuing a canine health advisory.

According to Dr. Brad Fenwick, professor of veterinary medicine, the advisory has been issued to make dog owners and veterinarians aware of streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, a canine form of toxic shock. In light of the acute and unexpected nature of the disease, as well as the high death rates associated with it -- even with appropriate veterinary care, Fenwick said it is particularly important dog owners become aware of the symptoms of canine streptococcal toxic shock.

Fenwick said canine streptococcal toxic shock has generated a great deal of concern and questions from dog owners. In many respects the disease mimics the condition in humans, which can be just as serious.

"Streptococcus bacteria cause the 'flesh-eating' disease in humans," Fenwick said. "Much of what is known about prevention and treatment has been through comparing the human disease with the condition in dogs. In turn we are hopeful that by studying the disease in dogs we can learn more about how to prevent toxic shock in humans."

Like the disease in humans, dogs that develop canine streptococcal toxic shock are healthy only hours prior to becoming very sick. Without prompt therapy, the dog's condition deteriorates rapidly with death occurring in as few as eight to 12 hours. Typically, dogs that develop canine streptococcal toxic shock are depressed and too weak to move; experience rigidity and muscle spasms, coupled with a high fever.

Fenwick said the dog's temperature may be greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit and may reach as high as 107. As the disease progresses, a deep, non-productive cough develops, followed by a rapid onset of spontaneous hemorrhaging, coughing up blood, bleeding from the nose, severe bruising of the skin and in some cases, bloody diarrhea.

Fenwick said "shock therapy" alone is generally not able to save dogs with canine streptococcal toxic shock. Dogs treated with the correct indictable antibiotics at the early stages of the condition are more likely to recover. Early recognition, a correct diagnosis and prompt treatment is essential.

Fenwick said it is important to distinguish canine streptococcal toxic shock from other diseases that affect dogs, most notably kennel cough which also causes coughing but only rarely high fevers and severe systemic illness. He urges prompt evaluation by a veterinarian to make a timely diagnosis.

Streptococci are members of a family of bacteria which cause either localized or systemic infections in humans and animals. While some strains rarely cause disease and are often considered to inhabit the skin and mucosal surfaces such as the mouth and nose, other strains are capable -- under the right conditions -- of causing life-threatening primary infections. Fenwick said fortunately the canine streptococcal toxic shock strains do not appear to be particularly contagious, but further research is necessary.

According to Fenwick, what allows the organism to cause full-blown toxic shock in one dog or one human and not another is not understood. Research is under way to determine if a new strain has recently emerged or if the disease has suddenly become more common for some other reason.

Currently there is no vaccine to prevent the disease. Fenwick said development of a reliable vaccine will likely be difficult because of the toxins' interference with the ability of the immune system to function properly.

"Given the unpredictable nature of the disease, the best thing to do is to recognize the early symptoms of the disease and treat it appropriately," Fenwick said. "Even an hour or two can make all the difference."

August 4, 1999