We imagine the ideal pet: a thoroughbred racehorse, a small-town hermit, a blue spaniel or a miniature schnauzer. My dogs are easygoing and cute. And I guess that’s good: a lot of puppy fur in our current climate, which is characterized by diphtheria and ear mites.
But now, officials in New York City have decided that canine Tuberculosis is so contagious that they are enacting a set of quarantine rules that apply to the roughly 170 dogs at the National Feline Research Center at Lincoln Park Zoo, even though there is no diagnostic test that can detect the disease. The quarantine is scheduled to end in six weeks. The Centers for Disease Control last month reported that an additional 6,400 domestic dogs in the United States may have latent TB. We would all be a lot safer if they just screened for it instead of waiting to catch it.
Almost any vaccine for dogs could provide a solution to this mounting public health concern, but are they a good idea? The CDC has already developed one. The lab-developed vaccine would produce a protective response in dogs of up to 1 million pigs, since the TB organism in pigs contains approximately 20,000 times more genes than those of cattle. Pigs seem to act like a host to the disease that human beings also carry, so dogs’ antibodies would protect human beings, who carry the human version of the TB bacteria. No one, to our knowledge, is vaccinating dogs against the human strain of TB.
Our pets can also get Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, tick-borne ehrlichiosis, distemper and parvo. Not only can these parasites be deadly, but because they are often transmitted by mosquitos, they are often fatal. For this reason, another group of professionals — primarily police officers and military personnel — is taking steps to vaccinate their horses against Lyme disease.
Vaccinating dogs can potentially protect humans as well. According to the Center for Disease Control, a dog can harbor at least 16 infectious microbes in its nose and trachea, and 60 in its intestinal tract. Though the puppies I had as a kid displayed nothing more than puppy “toxins,” I still lost my mother to pneumonia and ehrlichiosis, and children today are much more likely to die from these types of diseases, partly because vaccines are not equally effective for preventing them in children, partly because none of the vaccines are for humans. But what is disconcerting is the general lack of interest in public health measures for dogs. More vaccinations may eventually be an effective step, but the fact is that illnesses can infect our pets as easily as they can infect us.
Let’s hope the head of our city’s animal-control department, Joseph Esposito, gets to do his job, and that he makes vaccines — just for dogs — a priority. The next time your dog seems a little weird after being a border collie or a hound terrier, don’t be afraid to take it for a walk. He might need a vaccination.