Federal health officials said Monday that they are investigating a multistate outbreak of Campylobacter infections traced to puppies sold at Petland, a nationwide chain of about 80 pet stores.
The bacteria, a common cause of diarrheal illness that can spread through contact with dog feces, has sickened at least 39 people in Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Florida. Nine people have been hospitalized since last September, but no deaths have been reported, according to officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lab tests and epidemiological findings have linked the illnesses to the Ohio-based Petland, according to the CDC. Twelve of those diagnosed with Campylobacter infections are Petland employees, and 27 either bought a Petland puppy, visited one of the chain’s stores or visited a home with a Petland-purchased puppy.
Most cases of campylobacteriosis are associated with eating raw or undercooked poultry or meat, or from cross-contamination of these and other foods. But animals also can be infected, and they can spread the bacteria to people even though they might not show any symptoms. In people as well as puppies, the infection can cause bloody diarrhea, vomiting and fever. Most people who get sick recover within a week without any specific treatment.
The CDC announcement is likely to energize critics of pet stores that source puppies from commercial breeding operations, which increasingly have become the targets of animal protection groups. More than 200 cities and counties have enacted laws that ban pet shops from selling so-called puppy mill puppies, and Petland is now the only major national chain selling dogs from commercial breeders.
In July, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a class-action lawsuit against Petland, saying it defrauded customers by “guaranteeing” puppies it knew were prone to illnesses and other defects. The company, which says it only sells puppies from breeders licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and with clean federal inspection reports, provides a “Health Warranty” to purchasers of puppies and kittens saying the animal has been examined by two or three veterinarians before being offered for sale.
But the animal group’s director of litigation, Matthew Liebman, said Monday that those inspections are cursory at best and sometimes “rubber-stamped” by veterinarians who are beholden to the company. While Campylobacter is not among the conditions that customers have reported to the group, Liebman said he was not surprised to hear about the outbreak.
“It’s not hard to see how animals raised in these cramped and unsanitary conditions, trucked hundreds of miles from puppy mills to the pet stores, intermingled with other fragile young animals and handled by numerous employees and customers could become disease vectors,” he said.
In an email, Petland chief executive Joe Watson called the lawsuit’s allegations “baseless and tired.”
“Regardless of where you obtain your family dog, all dogs are carbon-based life-forms, and just like our own kids, they are subject to a wide variety [of] illness,” Watson said. “We take every precaution possible to ensure the health of our pets.”
Watson said Petland’s veterinarians probably would not have tested puppies for Campylobacter unless they were exhibiting symptoms.
CDC spokeswoman Brittany Behm said public health officials are not certain how common Campylobacter is in animals. Some studies have found that less than 20 percent of dogs carry the bacteria, while others have concluded that as many as 75 percent do, she said. The agency said that only some of the Petland puppies had any symptoms.
Watson said the company’s health warranty typically provides for veterinary treatment for various bacterial, viral and congenital issues, and so would cover vet-related costs for customers whose puppies were infected with the bacteria. Petland has provided kennel documentation and veterinarian contact information to the CDC, he said, adding that the agency “had no recommendations or changes to our processes.”
The CDC estimates that about 1.3 million cases of Campylobacter occur in people each year, about two-thirds of which are food-borne, Behm said. The remainder of cases come from animals and other sources. Most infections do not spread from one person to another.
Most of the individuals infected during the current outbreak are in Florida or Ohio.
To avoid contracting the illness, the CDC advises puppy and dog owners to wash their hands well after handling their pets and to promptly clean up feces, urine or vomit. It’s also a bad idea to let a dog lick your mouth or face, the agency says.