One of the few bastions of purity left in this forsaken world—puppies—might be inadvertently spreading a bacterial superbug that causes diarrhea. Last week, the Centers for Disease and Prevention reported that an outbreak of multidrug-resistant Campylobacter jejuni has sickened more than 100 people across 18 states in the past two years. And most of these victims had recently come into contact with a pet store puppy.
C. jejuni is one of the most common culprits of food poisoning, causing an estimated 1.3 million cases in the U.S. annually. Most of these cases are isolated, rarely showing up as part of an outbreak. Outbreaks can happen, though, and dogs are known to be an occasional source of C. jejuni infections.
In August 2017, the Florida Department of Health caught wind of six C. jejuni cases linked to a single national pet store chain based in Ohio. The CDC then got involved and confirmed that the same strain behind the Florida cases was also responsible for a case in Ohio, according to their report. After that, health and agricultural agencies in several states as well as the CDC started sweeping across the country, looking for similar occurrences.
As February 28, 2018, there have been 118 confirmed or probable cases of the same outbreak strain reported from 18 states. Of the 106 people interviewed by officials, 105 reported being exposed to dogs before they got sick, including 101 people who specifically remembered touching puppies; 29 of those sickened were pet store employees. At least 24 people were hospitalized as a result, though none have died.
C. jejuni usually clears up on its own without treatment, causing two to three days of often bloody diarrhea, cramps, and fever. But it can be more dangerous in people who have weak immune systems. And rarely, it can cause a painful neurological condition after the infection is defeated, known as Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Perhaps more worrying than the cases themselves is the particular strain of C. jejuni implicated in the outbreak. It was found to be resistant to all commonly used antibiotics against Campylobacter bacteria. And of the 149 puppies investigated by health officials, 95 percent had received antibiotics, which may have contributed to the strain’s antibiotic resistance.
There were six pet store chains linked to the outbreak, though the report doesn’t name any. The CDC has reported elsewhere that the majority of cases were linked to Petland stores. However, there was no single breeder, distributor, or transporter identified as the main source of the infection. Because puppies from different breeders often mix together along the way to a pet shop, it’s likely the infection was spread easily between puppies from a variety of sources.
The outbreak is the largest of its kind ever linked to dogs. And it’s the first ever to feature such an antibiotic-resistant strain. But though the CDC’s investigation is formally over, the threat of more cases isn’t.
“Consumers, employees, and clinicians should be aware of the risk for disease transmission from puppies, including the possibility of exposure to multidrug-resistant pathogens,” the report concluded.
Commercial breeders, it added, might need stronger regulations and education to ensure they’re only using antibiotics under the approval of a veterinarian.