Written by Eileen Candiloro, CNN
Humans don’t have to worry about diseases in the street or in the hospital, but dogs and cats are vulnerable to a range of debilitating diseases, from SARS to HIV and rabies.
“That’s like having a 7-Eleven just across the street from your house, in case you want some coffee,” says Cynthia Salerno, a senior lecturer in Veterinary Science at the University of Leeds who has researched modern pet disease.
Until recently, their illness largely affected isolated populations. “That goes a long way to explaining why we didn’t have a dog flu or a pet cancer disease,” says Salerno.
But certain strains of canine distemper, parvovirus, parvo and distemper — all of which have enormous impact on the animal’s health — have become more easily transmitted since the introduction of household pet salmonella and bacteria in recent decades.
Since around 2016, all dogs and cats in the United States have been vaccinated against parvo in the UK, including puppies and puppies being bought online. But none of these vaccines are currently available as a therapeutic option for dogs and cats from other countries.
Disease of the heart
While parvo is preventable, canine distemper spreads easily, so the vaccine is more likely to be needed. The disease of the heart may not only have a profound impact on the animal’s health, but its treatment can be expensive and long-term.
Dogs that are infected with parvo can die within 24 hours. “If you get it in a young puppy, that would be a likely cause of death within 48 hours, at the very latest,” says Professor Salerno. “Once the dog is already on antibiotics, and is in a vet’s care, you have a good chance of saving the life.”
But rabies is far more difficult to treat. While it’s preventable, the virus evolves so quickly that rabies is difficult to fight once in the animal’s body. Only a combination of three or four animal vaccines is deemed useful, the most common of which is a rabies vaccine using live but weakened rabies virus.
If rabies doesn’t respond to the vaccine and the animal becomes vaccinated, the puppy can die — a sad outcome for the puppy and its owner.
“The short term will kill the puppy very quickly,” Salerno says. “The long term will kill it forever.”
Dogs are also more likely to contract distemper if they’ve previously been vaccinated against parvo, or if they haven’t been vaccinated against distemper.
“Dogs are a survivor species,” says Salerno. “If you pick them up in a situation of emergency like if they’ve been in a car accident, you have to take them to a vet as soon as possible because you can’t afford for them to die.”
Fighting antimicrobial resistance
Today, rabies can be treated using a combination vaccine to kill the virus with a powerful antibiotic, but the cost is high and time-consuming to administer — not to mention that animals that have been vaccinated against rabies can then develop more resistance to the medication.
The combination vaccine for parvo costs over $50 per animal and vaccines used to fight distemper cost as much as $700 per animal.
“The combination vaccine is only used in the UK, where we have a minimal cost for vaccines,” she says.
By comparison, in the US you can buy medicine and an antibiotic to treat dogs as little as $10 per animal, but researchers warn that this is an inexact and stressful process that only results in emergency treatment.
“This would be a great application for vaccines developed for human disease,” says Professor Salerno. “Otherwise we would have to treat all animals with some very powerful antibiotics and do it on a schedule we would not be able to manage.”