Saved but suffering

New owners find many of dogs orphaned by natural disasters have untreated ills

Berkeley O’Keefe with Ziggy, a yellow lab from Arkansas who survived parvovirus. Berkeley O’Keefe with Ziggy, a yellow lab from Arkansas who survived parvovirus. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / May 21, 2011

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Massachusetts veterinarians report seeing an increasing number of dogs with serious infectious diseases not typically found in New England, a phenomenon they say is probably fueled by a growing number of pets rescued from Southern states, many of them unvaccinated strays.

The trend, they say, has escalated since 2005, when wrenching images of pets abandoned after Hurricane Katrina prompted makeshift rescue groups to transport animals to northern states in hopes of saving them.

Since then, the caravans north include animals displaced from tornado- and flood-ravaged areas, with the latest flooding of the Mississippi River spawning yet another large-scale migration.

Out-of-state pet adoptions via the Internet have compounded the problem, say animal welfare officials, because some of these organizations are intentionally or unwittingly skirting rules intended to curb disease transmission.

Groups bringing dogs into Massachusetts must register with the state, and the animals are supposed to be quarantined for at least 48 hours and undergo disease screenings, said Michael Cahill, director of the division of animal health at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. He said his staff of 18 is already swamped by the roughly 10,000 dogs legally imported to Massachusetts each year. And that does not include many other animals.

“We do everything from cats to cattle,’’ Cahill said.

Precisely how many infected dogs are coming into Massachusetts is hard to pinpoint. The list of illnesses vets must report to the state does not include some of the emerging ones they are seeing in dogs that have been rescued. Cahill said his agency started the list years ago to track diseases that might threaten livestock and only in the past five years started to add illnesses carried by companion animals.

For instance, he said the state added parvovirus in 2007, and since then the reported number of cases in dogs has jumped from 4 in 2008 to 119 last year. Cahill said some of that increase may reflect growing awareness among vets about the reporting requirement, but he believes it also illustrates the increased numbers of imported dogs, because only 20 of the 119 last year involved locally acquired pets.

Parvovirus, an often lethal disease that attacks the lining of a dog’s intestine, is endemic in the South and easily spread among dogs through contact with infected feces.

“We have seen an increase with local dogs becoming infected in areas that didn’t used to be a problem, and I think that is from rescue dogs coming in,’’ Cahill said.

Dr. Elizabeth Rozanski, head of critical care at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said that over the past five years she has seen a steady increase in the number of dogs brought in with parvovirus and mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses that are common in Southern states but are unusual here, including Babesiosis, Ehrlichiosis, and heartworm. Infected bugs transmit the diseases from one dog to the next.

“If we have a dog come in here with one of these diseases, our veterinarians would have a tough time recognizing them because it’s not on your radar for suspicion,’’ Rozanski said.

There are no vaccines to protect against Babesiosis and Ehrlichiosis, but dogs in New England are routinely vaccinated for parvovirus. Most are also given monthly pills to guard against heartworm, a difficult disease to treat after the worms damage a dog’s heart and potentially its lungs.

Vets say that unsuspecting consumers who do business with disreputable organizations may be adopting pets that are sick but not displaying symptoms. Heartworm, for instance, can take up to six months to show up in a screening test.

“It’s an important animal welfare movement to save these puppies, but we have to do it in a protected, careful way,’’ said Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, director of veterinary medical services at the Animal Rescue League of Boston.

The soulful eyes of a caged puppy just off a rescue truck can be a powerful lure.

Just ask Berkeley O’Keefe, a 36-year-old manager at the MSPCA’s Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, who has seen many of these dogs. Still, he was mesmerized by a 17-week-old yellow Lab named Colonel who was trucked in from Arkansas in February by a rescue organization that, MSPCA officials said, did not follow proper quarantine and screening requirements. Many of the dogs, including Colonel, had parvovirus and ended up at Angell. But after 10 days of hospitalization, O’Keefe took Colonel home to nurse him back to health.

For two weeks O’Keefe’s family, including his 2- and 4-year-old girls, tried hard not to fall in love with the puppy who, doctors said, might not survive.

“As soon as he puts his head on your foot when you are watching TV, he is just a sweet dog, it’s hard to not fall in love with him,’’ O’Keefe said.

Colonel made it, and as soon as doctors cleared him for adoption, the O’Keefes renamed him Ziggy and took him home for good.

Massachusetts has long been a magnet for out-of-state rescue agencies and puppy farms with substandard health practices because the state’s strong spay and neutering campaigns have slashed the number of puppies born locally. But the number of imports grew after Katrina.

Most of the imports, Cahill said, are coming from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

“When rescue, which is not just a noble effort but a necessary endeavor, is done responsibly, it’s a good thing,’’ Cahill said. “But when it’s not, it’s not just detrimental to the animals you are trying to help but to the resident animals who are exposed and are harmed.’’

Kay Lazar can be reached at