Suburban killer disease in dogs


AS the world battles a third wave of COVID-19, the animal health care systems, particularly in developing countries such as Zimbabwe, are highly compromised due to animal owners’ negligence, lockdowns and reduced economic activities.  

Livestock and domestic pets are also vulnerable due to the lack of appropriate veterinary services and medical supplies. 

While people take measures to combat and prevent the further spread of the human COVID-19 virus, it should be remembered that animals, especially domestic pets like dogs, are also prone to many virulent diseases, such as parvo-virus, canine hepatitis, parainfluenza, canine distemper virus and the illusive, acute hemorrhagic diarrhoea syndrome (AHDS).

Recently, on unkept urban buildings and illegal dumping sites, such as those mushrooming in Newlands, Chisipite, Vainona, Borrowdale, Helensvale, Borrowdale Brook, Crowhill, Marimba Park and Bulawayo Road Western Suburbs, among others, where much rapid construction is taking place on wetlands, especially during the lockdown period, dogs kept to guard such premises are left unfed to stray around outdoor, scavenging for food around food vending areas.  

As a result, some dogs have fallen prey to this highly virulent and contagious condition.

In the course of duty with Veterinary Solutions recently, four confirmed cases of AHDS, in one Harare northern suburb alone, prompted further research and the dissemination of this article.

Acute hemorrhagic diarrhoea syndrome is as mysterious as it is fatal.  

It is an idiopathic dog disease which, due to its complexity, has remained largely unknown.  

According to two fellow veterinarians, Dr Tara Sharpe from the University of Washington, Seattle, and Dr Lorraine Carter from the Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine: “AHDS is a stealthy, unannounced cluster of conditions that can affect any breed, age, size or gender of dog, but is more common in small breed dogs, such as Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, Miniature Huskies, Dachshunds, Shetland Sheep Dogs, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Spaniels, among otherts and are particularly difficult to diagnose.”

Larger foreign (exotic) dog breeds such as Great Danes, Mastiffs, Rottweilers, St Bernard’s and Greyhounds, that are typically unvaccinated, may show initial resistance and may take a little longer to exhibit symptoms of this disease but react more severely to it.  

Even local breeds, such as the Zimbabwean Ridgeback and the indigenous canis africanus, are susceptible to AHDS.

The late renowned Zimbabwean veterinary surgeon, Dr Dexter Chavunduka, who studied at Edinburgh University, Scotland, described AHDS in his papers as: “A complex syndrome with a myriad of causes and symptoms, affecting dogs instantaneously and requiring urgent appropriate supportive care with intravenous fluid therapy and anti-biotic treatment.”  

But unfortunately, today in the corridors of the local medical and veterinary fraternity, a shortage of anti-biotics is already being experienced due to unlawful hoarding by some nurses and other medical workers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zimbabwe’s national supply of antibiotics needs to be urgently restocked. 

Due to the fact that there are so many possible causes of AHDS, the accurate diagnosis is often a process of eliminating other causes of bloody stools, lethargy and gastro intestinal distress.  Diagnosis of the condition may be challenging and may require clinical tests such as a complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis, biochemical analysis of the blood, fecal evaluation and an endoscopic examination of the gastro intestinal tract. 

Owing to its complexity and the rapid onset of the dysfunction of internal organs, accompanied by profuse diarrhoea, fever and wasting, AHDS has to be treated timeously. 

In simple medical terms, a syndrome is any combination of signs or symptoms and clinical indications that are indicative of a particular disease or disorder normally associated with a particular ailment.

So what exactly is AHDS?

Acute hemorrhagic diarrhoea syndrome, also known as hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE) is a severe clinical disorder of dogs characterised by vomiting and bloody diarrhoea.  

Most cases occur without warning in otherwise healthy dogs.  According to Dr Tammy Hunter and Dr Ernest Ward (DVM): “The main and most disturbing clinical sign is large amounts of bloody diarrhoea, very often bright red. Some dogs may have a painful abdomen, decreased appetite, fatigue or fever.”

Apart from the aforementioned symptoms, in my observations, I have also noticed hyper salivation, runny mucus and grainy coffee-coloured lumps and grass in the scarlet-stained stools, as well as dizzy unco-ordinated mobility in the movements of the dogs.  

Pathologically, AHDS may first manifest as seizures and convulsions and its diagnosis can be mistaken for epileptic fits, following which the dog displays symptoms of para-amnesia in which it may not recognise its owners.   

These pronounced behavioural changes will vary but will occur in most smaller dog breeds.  

The animal will be aloof and non-responsive, often hiding in a cool secluded spot, preferring to drink from sandy or muddy puddles rather than drinking bowls – indicative of dehydration and iron and calcium deficiency.  

A common denominator in all the cases I witnessed in Zimbabwe so far is that the dogs are kept where construction is taking place on wetlands, with an accumulation of building sand, cement, paint, chemicals, takeaway boxes, plastics and dog faeces with other general trash and debris.   

With irregular or no waste disposal being undertaken throughout the city and suburbs, there is a growing accumulation of suburban dump sites, often frequented by these unfortunate dogs, stray cats and, naturally, disease-carrying rats in search of food.

Latest bio-chemical research in cross-discipline veterinary discourse indicates that AHDS may be an allergic reaction to either food, inhalants or chemicals, particularly those used in the construction industry.  

Farm dogs may also contract the condition from sites with discarded agro-chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides or other such farm waste. 

Additionally, AHDS in Zimbabwe may be related to dietary indiscretion such as ingesting non-food items and foreign bodies such as contaminated chicken carcasses, birds, rodents, kaylite/plastic take-away containers and industrial toxins; all of which point to a lack of environmental management in urban areas.  

Anxiety and stress are also thought to be other major contributing factors to AHDS.

Since some of the common causes of AHDS are known, it is advisable for dog owners to feed their animals a regular good quality diet that must include protein, which offers the dog easy digestion and balanced nutrition; daily fresh clean drinking water, clean bedding and a clean environment with cut grass and shade trees.  

Additionally, all pets must be regularly washed and powdered for fleas and mites and all refuse and dog faeces must be removed daily from the yard and disposed of hygienically to prevent the spread of illnesses.

Both the Harare city council and the SPCA are found wanting in such cases. 

Dog owners need to ensure their dogs are kept in their yards and the Harare City Council and the SPCA mobile units must ensure this is done and that dogs are vaccinated according to the law if we are to contain the spread of this silent, mysterious urban dog killer.

Dr Tony Monda holds a DVM and is currently researching Agronomy, Farming and Veterinary epidemiology in Zimbabwe.

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