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Most households include a pet, yet there’s no disease surveillance on companion animals in Western Canada. Photo: Caitlin Taylor.

Surveillance project identifies pathogens in dogs on Prairies

A new research project at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) aims to identify disease-causing organisms among dogs — an overlooked population on the Canadian Prairies.

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WCVM graduate student Dr. Erica Sims. Photo: Christina Weese.

“This is a group of animals we really should be more interested in,” says Dr. Erica Sims, a WCVM graduate student who is leading the canine portion of the Companion Animal Surveillance Initiative. “These are animals we’re in direct contact with, they sleep in our beds – we spend really close contact and a lot of time with them.”

Sims is a 2016 graduate of the WCVM’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. Piqued by her interest in infectious and zoonotic disease, Sims returned to the WCVM in 2019 to begin a Master of Science program in veterinary epidemiology with Dr. Tasha Epp, an associate professor in the college’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences.

Sims says the project grew from an interest in how companion animal health concerns relate to potential public health incidents.

“We really don’t monitor companion animal diseases from either the animal health side or the public health side of things,” says Sims. “So, the idea behind this companion animal initiative is to start to develop some platform in which we can monitor these things through surveillance.” 

Once the initiative is fully developed, participating western Canadian veterinary clinics can access an online portal where they will be able to report cases of disease, fill in quarterly surveys and obtain feedback on trends of the surveillance as researchers detect them.

The research project encompasses three different types of disease-causing agents. Zoonotic pathogens are directly transmitted between humans and animals – whether that’s through tissue, direct contact or a shared environment – while anthroponotic pathogens are directly spread from people to animals. Sapronotic pathogens don’t involve any direct transmission and are acquired though a shared environment where the pathogen can survive for a period of time. A single pathogen can act in more than one way; for example, some may be both zoonotic and sapronotic.

In the past, animals have been helpful in assessing risks to human health. It’s estimated that 50 to 60 per cent of urban households in Canada have at least one companion animal, but so far, there’s no active surveillance of this population like those that exist for people, livestock and wildlife in Canada.

“[The area has] been a recognized area of weakness in the country,” says Epp. “We have surveillance for most other animal species, but companion animals have always kind of fallen in the grey zone.”

Epp adds that Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces all have their own surveillance initiatives, so it made the most sense to start one for the western Canadian provinces.

“With Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in particular, we felt that climate drivers, environmental drivers [and] social aspects would be pretty similar across all three provinces,” says Sims.

Starting with dogs, the researchers are identifying a wide variety of pathogens: bacteria, ectoparasites (parasites that live outside of their hosts such as fleas), fungi, helminths (parasitic worms), protozoa (single-celled organisms), rickettsia (bacteria that cause typhus and other fever-causing illnesses) and viruses.

The WCVM research team scoured veterinary textbooks and other literature to compile an extensive list of nearly 600 pathogens in dogs and then used three criteria to pare down the number. They looked at whether the pathogen is zoonotic, sapronotic or anthroponotic; whether dogs are involved in transmitting the pathogen to humans or maintaining or detecting the pathogen; and determining the level of risk for the pathogen to occur in Canada.

With this criteria, researchers narrowed down the list to 84 pathogens of interest that apply to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. British Columbia is included in the overall surveillance project, but in order to pick specific pathogens, Epp says the team stuck more specifically to the Prairie provinces.

“The pathogens we picked for that area may not be exactly the same as the ones we would have picked had we included B.C.,” says Epp. “It’s more of a semi-tropical temperate zone versus the Prairies here [where] we are certainly not in the semi-tropical type of environment.”

Epp adds that the surveillance project will ultimately include pathogens in British Columbia – but those organisms may not be as significant to the dog population in the Prairie provinces. 

The surveillance project will eventually cover cats and possibly exotic pets – but starting with dogs was a personal preference for Sims and Epp. It was also the ideal starting point because dogs are more prevalent in the veterinary world.

“Dogs are more commonly seen in [veterinary] clinics than overall pet populations,” says Epp. “Far more of the dogs go on a regular basis and cats maybe only go once or a few times.”

The research team’s paper, “Defining important canine zoonotic pathogens within the Prairie Provinces of Canada,” was recently published in the May 2021 issue of Canadian Veterinary Journal. A second research article will highlight and define selected pathogens in the surveillance initiative.

Collecting and studying the resulting data will be the research team’s focus for the next 18 months to two years, says Epp.

“My hope is that it will become a bit of a culture within the veterinary community,” says Epp.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Infectious Disease and Climate Change Fund (IDCCF) are providing financial support for this study. 

Jessica Colby of Montmartre, Sask., is a fourth-year student in the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. She is working as a research communications intern at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) for summer 2021.

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