These are diseases that can occur in other parts of the country, but seem to do so with particular frequency here. The name of the disease will be followed by what kind of organism causes that disease.
Plague - bacteria
Many people think of bubonic plague as the kind of thing that is not really a problem in the modern United States- in fact, it seems like the first thing that comes to mind when one hears "plague" is the Black Death in 14th century Europe. The same microorganism that caused the Black Death, a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, is alive and well in 21st century New Mexico, where it affects a number of both cats and dogs every year.
Typically, pets are exposed to plague when they come in contact with wild animals, as they often host the fleas that carry the bacteria. Symptoms include lethargy, high fever, and swollen lymph nodes. The term "bubonic" actually refers to these swollen lymph nodes, which have historically been known as "buboes." Plague can be transmitted to humans, so we handle suspected plague patients with precautions like gloves, masks, and gowns.
Our treatment for plague generally includes IV fluids and injectable antibiotics, which are usually successful in reducing patients' temperatures and improving their energy levels fairly quickly. We also submit blood samples from suspected plague cases to a New Mexico state lab, where they can keep track of where the disease is active.
To help your pet avoid plague-carrying fleas, we recommend keeping them away from wild animals like rabbits and prairie dogs. Outdoor cats who enjoy hunting are at serious risk for contracting plague simply because their activities almost always bring them into close contact with potentially infected rodents and fleas.
Tularemia - bacteria
We often mention tularemia in the same breath as plague, because they have many similarities, including symptoms (high fever, enlarged lymph nodes, poor appetite) and carriers (rodents and rabbits, primarily, with tick bites as an important vector). Tularemia can also be transmitted to humans via contact with ticks or with infected cats or dogs. Factoid: diseases that pass back and forth between animals and humans are called zoonotic diseases. Because of the disease?s ability to affect humans, we also submit blood samples from suspected tularemia patients to the state lab.
Even though a send-out test is required to definitely diagnose both plague and tularemia, we are typically comfortable going ahead with treatment for patients who are symptomatic for the disease while we wait for the test results to come back.
Like plague, treatment for tularemia will also involve antibiotic administration and, depending on the severity of the infection, may require hospitalization on IV fluids as well. Some literature suggests that cats may suffer more from tularemia than dogs, given that it seems to attack more of the body in the former than the latter. For example, tularemia has been seen to damage cats' spleens, livers, and even cause ulcers on the mouth and tongue, while the effects in dogs seem limited to the symptoms described in the first paragraph.
This is kind of unfortunate, given how (again) cats are more likely to be hunting outdoors on their own, exposing them to rabbits, rodents, and the accompanying ticks. Simply taking a bite out of an infected (and weakened) prey animal can be enough to contract tularemia.
Distemper - virus
One of the primary vaccines (or "core vaccines") we give dogs, along with rabies, is called the DA2PP vaccine, which stands for distemper, adenovirus-2, parvovirus, and parainfluenza, describing all the viruses against which the vaccine protects. The distemper virus, a little similar to the plague bacterium, is sometimes regarded in other parts of the US as a very rare occurrence and not a real threat, but we see cases of distemper at our hospital on a sadly regular basis.
Puppies are at greatest risk when it comes to contracting the distemper virus because their immune systems are not fully developed, which is why we administer three or four distemper booster vaccines during the first few months of puppies' lives. A dog suffering from the distemper virus can develop respiratory tract symptoms- nasal discharge, coughing- along with eye discharge and sometimes even neurological issues.
Unfortunately, there are at present no proven therapies to treat distemper virus, so the best thing to do is make sure your puppies are kept away from other dogs of uncertain vaccine status until fully vaccinated, and your dogs are kept up to date on their distemper vaccines.
Giardiasis - protozoan
Giardia is a microorganism with two life stages- a cyst and a little swimming creature called a trophozooite. It can infect both humans and pets! We typically diagnose giardia while performing fecal exams- one component of these exams involves placing a tiny fecal sample in a drop of saline solution and looking at it under a microscope, where the trophozooite can be seen moving merrily through the water.
Since the giardia microorganism lives in the gastrointestinal tract of animals, pets and people usually contract giardia by drinking water that's been contaminated by the fecal matter of infected animals, often livestock. Of course, direct contact with fecal matter may also result in an infection. Pets suffering from giardia often come to see us with diarrhea, and may also be feeling some general upset stomach-type symptoms. In rare cases, severe diarrhea might require rehydration via IV fluids, but a course of oral medication is usually enough to resolve any problems.
To keep pets from drinking potentially contaminated water, it is best to carry clean drinking water for your pets as well as yourself when out on a hike. Most streams around Santa Fe are high in the mountains and very clear to the eye, but (as one of our veterinarians is fond of saying) there is giardia basically everywhere. The largest the giardia organism will ever get is about two hundredths of a millimeter, so you are not going to see it with the naked eye.
Parvovirus - virus
It's not too much of a stretch to say that parvovirus- also called parvoviral enteritis, or just plain parvo- is enemy number one at our hospital. The disease largely affects puppies, and the "enteritis" part of the name refers to its primary target: the intestines of the affected animal. Dogs with parvovirus suffer from severe diarrhea (sometimes bloody). Diarrhea is often accompanied by vomiting, lack of appetite, and lethargy. Vomiting and diarrhea can quickly dehydrate a small puppy, and dehydration can make it very difficult for the body to fight off infection. Parvovirus can be fatal to small puppies very quickly.
Because the organism that causes this illness is a virus, all we can really do is provide supportive care, including IV fluids and injectable antibiotics (to prevent infection from taking hold in the intestines), injectable anti-nausea medication, and injectable pain medication. Patients with serious cases of parvo often spend several days in the hospital, receiving constant care, and they unfortunately do not always recover.
Preventing parvovirus is similar to the prevention of distemper- if you remember, parvovirus is another disease against which the DA2PP puppy booster vaccine protects- so keeping your dog current on vaccines is very important. Also, we recommend not taking your puppy anywhere other dogs have been until he or she is fully vaccinated, usually at around 16 weeks old. Among its less charming qualities, the parvovirus organism can survive for a very, very long time in the ground, and an not-fully-vaccinated puppy can contract the disease simply be coming in contact with it.