What dog owners need to know about brucellosis after recent cases in Ontario

Recent cases of a bacterial infection called brucellosis in dogs may have some pet owners concerned about what it means for their animal. Ontario Veterinary College professor Scott Weese says the infection can be spread to humans, but the risk is low.

Infection can be spread to humans but you don’t get it from ‘quick, casual contact’

There's been an increase in cases of brucellosis in dogs in Ontario. Researchers say if you're buying a puppy, it's best to know the dog's background and if you don't, to have the dog tested. (Netflix)

Social media reports of a bacterial infection called brucellosis spreading among southern Ontario dogs have raised fears, but veterinarians say the average dog owner doesn't have too much to worry about. 

On its Facebook page on the weekend, Kismutt Dog Rescue near London, Ont., posted about cases of brucellosis, urging anyone who adopted any dogs from the rescue in the past year to have their pets tested.

Brucellosis can cause reproductive problems in dogs, including stillbirths and miscarriages. 

The head of the rescue declined to speak with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo, and it remains unclear how many dogs might have been impacted, if any.

"We're trying to sort out what the problem is," said Scott Weese, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph and an infectious disease researcher.

He noted there's been a concern about the bacteria for a while, particularly in imported dogs and commercial breeders.

Bianca Jamieson with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affrais says brucellosis "is found occasionally in Ontario each year. We are currently aware of a few cases in the province." 

When it's found, brucellosis must be reported to the ministry, a requirement of the Animal Health Act.

Not like the flu

Weese said for the average dog owner, the concern of their dog contracting brucellosis is low.

"It's not a disease like influenza where it spreads really rapidly and through casual contact. How we see this bacterium spread is through direct and usually prolonged contact and more through breeding and in kennels," he said.

"We're not really worried about somebody walking their dog in the park, seeing another dog and getting brucella. That's not how it's transmitted."

But if you recently bought a puppy and don't know the background of that dog, including if the dog came from a place outside of Canada, it might be time for a chat with your veterinarian, he says.

"The biggest risk for brucella is in commercial breeders, so large breeders, puppy mills, and those dogs can be sold through various people and various ways, so you may not necessarily know that's what you're getting," he said.

Can be tricky to treat

The process to test for the disease may take some time, Weese says. Pets that have brucellosis can be treated for the infection, but he notes it can be tricky because the bacteria can "hide" in the body.

"In households, it's really a case-by-case scenario. Certainly, it's not an automatic euthanasia … but there are complications in treating and managing, and that's where we need to sort that out with each individual dog and owner," he said.

For a breeder, euthanasia might be necessary to prevent the spread of the infection to puppies and other dogs, he said.

There is also a risk of the bacteria spreading to humans, he said.

"If you're living with the dog and you have a lot of chance for exposure, that's when we get concerned about the risk of infection," he said.

Weese noted there are few reports of humans getting the infection from dogs, but it's unclear if it's because it's rare for it to happen or because it's underreported.

The CFIA says brucellosis can cause a disease in humans called "undulant fever," but cases are rare.

For people who want to learn more about the bacteria, Weese recommends the vet college's Worms and Germs blog, government fact sheets or information posted by kennel clubs.

Not tracked by OSPCA, CFIA

Alison Cross, senior director of marketing and communications for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says they don't track infectious diseases.

Cross noted the OSPCA "has no record of any recent cruelty reports where brucellosis has been identified."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it does not track cases of brucella canis.

"Brucella canis (B. canis) is the species that causes brucellosis in dogs and is the species of brucella related to the recent Ontario outbreaks," a spokesperson said in an email.

"The CFIA is involved in brucellosis cases that affect food-producing animals. Livestock appear to be highly resistant to B. canis infection, and, as such, the CFIA is not involved in canine brucellosis cases."

Dr. Scott Weese is a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. (Craig Chivers/CBC)


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