If a new bioterrorism threat such as anthrax were to occur, pets might serve as the first line of defense. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned veterinarians across the country to monitor all animals, particularly livestock, for symptoms of anthrax.
There is concern that the future of bioterrorism might involve other ways besides the postal system, including animal infection. "Animal owners who are conscientious will see symptoms -- respiratory difficulty, lethargic, not eating -- right away," says Dr. Thomas Pastor of Audubon Veterinary Hospital. "Of course, those can be symptoms of many other problems, so anthrax would not usually be the first thing to come to mind. But with all this stuff going on now, we would be more likely to consider it."
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, other symptoms to watch out for include fever, excitement followed by depression, uncoordination, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody discharges and convulsions.
Pastor says that a pet infected with anthrax would most likely be treated with Baytril, an antibiotic specifically created for animals. It's
the equivalent of Cipro for humans, and is made by the same company. However, at the end of this month, the Food and Drug Administration might withdraw its approval of Baytril because its overuse with chickens has led to rising antibiotic resistance in the people who eat them.
"Baytril is certainly not the only drug effective against anthrax," reassures Dr. Mark Neer of Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He says that if the FDA took Baytril off the market, veterinarians could prescribe alternative antibiotics such as doxycycline, penicillins and possibly other fluoroquinolones, such as Zinequin.
State veterinarian Dr. Maxwell Lea in Baton Rouge cautions that anthrax acts quickly and the owner might not observe anything out of the ordinary until it's too late. The good news is dogs and cats -- as well as most other carnivores, birds and reptiles -- are much less susceptible to anthrax than herbivores. Carnivores are most likely to contract anthrax if they eat undercooked meat from an infected animal.
Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that can form spores. These spores allow it to survive in soil for some time. Hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes can ingest anthrax spores while grazing and are the most vulnerable to it. Even though horses also graze, they are less susceptible to the disease.
"Humans can get anthrax from animals, but it would have to be a gross contamination ... [for example] a puncture wound," says Pastor. "It's happened, which is why we vaccinate cattle."
Thanks to regular vaccinations of livestock, the incidence of anthrax in the United States is low. High-risk areas include Central and South America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Aside from the recent, terrorism-related cases of anthrax, the infection is rarely seen in humans. Those most at risk are people who are in close contact with livestock or contaminated wool, goatskin and pelts.
There are other diseases that terrorists could use to more effectively infect animals -- and in turn, humans. "One I'd be afraid of is pasteurella," says Pastor, "which caused the bubonic plague. It responds well to antibiotics but it would spread like crazy." He adds that a more likely scenario would be for terrorists to go through the food chain rather than pets. Lea says foot and mouth disease could devastate livestock, but it wouldn't affect cats and dogs.
"Frankly, it's unlikely that terrorists would target companion animals," says Lea. "But if there are any unusual or strange circumstances, it's important to have the vet check it out, and that's whether it's anthrax or any other unexplained illness."