Mr. Douglas is a more attentive pet owner than many, but when his beagle began suddenly vomiting with attendant bouts of diarrhea, he decided to wait to see if the problem would cure itself. By the fourth day, he took his poor four-footed companion to the veterinarian, but by then it was too late; irreversible complications had developed and the faithful creature died.
In Costa Rica, one of the most frequent causes of veterinary emergencies is an onslaught of vomiting and diarrhea, signs of stomach and intestinal problems called gastroenteritis.
Just as with children, gastroenteritis causes rapid dehydration and shock – especially in young animals – and every year numerous pets die from not receiving prompt and effective medical care, in many cases including intravenous liquid.
Owners here almost always attribute the symptoms to “parasites” (worms and such) and try treating the symptoms with antiparasite nostrums. However, during the past five years the significance of parasites as the cause of gastroenteritis among small animals has greatly diminished, and it is now rarely found to be the root cause of the problem. This is because of the ready availability of over-the-counter anti-parasite remedies, resulting in attentive pet owners giving this medicine every two or three months.
But nature has an irritating biological tactic by which, when a certain entity is displaced from its “ecological niche,” another comes along to fill the vacuum. This is why bacterial and protozoal infections have taken the place occupied by parasites 10 or 20 years ago. The most common protozoans include coccoids (6%) and giardia (11%), but bacterial infections are by far the most frequent cause of cat and dog gastroenteritis in Costa Rica. The three most common bacteria are campylobacter (30% of local cases), clostridium (38%) and brachyspira (5%).
Alas, anti-parasite treatments have no effect on bacteria or protozoans and more specific remedies have to be applied. (It’s important to note that most anti-diarrhea medicines containing antibacterial ingredients such as sulfa simply aren’t effective against the three main causes of bacterial diarrhea.) Perhaps most important, the three bacteria just mentioned can be transmitted to human beings.
(In fact, the World Health Organization points to campylobacter as the most frequent cause of diarrhea in humans worldwide, causing one death in every 1,000 cases in the United States, and infection is associated with autoimmune aftereffects such as Guillain Barré Syndrome.)
So, be warned: all pets afflicted with persistent vomiting, soft stools or diarrhea (with or without blood) should be separated immediately from children and treated with sanitary precautions. But take heart – prompt diagnosis with laboratory findings and proper treatment produce speedy recovery within 48 hours in 98% of the most frequently encountered infections.
–Dr. Rafael Gamboa