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Puppies Might Be Causing A Diarrheal Illness Outbreak In Seven States

Who knew something so cute could cause so much diarrhea?

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An outbreak of Campylobacter bacteria — aka an infection that causes lots of diarrhea — has been linked to puppies sold at pet store chain Petland. It's caused at least 39 people across seven states to get sick.

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On Monday, Sept. 11, the CDC announced that it is investigating a multistate outbreak of human Campylobacter bacteria linked to puppies sold Petland stores. Petland is a national pet store chain (not to be confused with Petland Discounts, a separate chain that operates in only three states).

The illnesses associated with the outbreak date back nearly a year to September 2016, and have affected people in Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Those infected include 12 Petland employees and 27 people who either bought a puppy at Petland, visited a store, or visited or live in a home with a puppy from Petland.

The CDC reported that those affected range in age from 1 to 64. Nine people have been hospitalized, but there haven't been any reports of deaths. Laboratory evidence indicates that Petland stores are likely to be the source of the outbreak, but additional laboratory results from people and dogs are pending. According to the CDC, Petland is cooperating with health officials.

In a statement published on Sept. 11, sent to BuzzFeed News from Petland's director of public affairs via email, the company said that “the CDC has not indicated any failures of Petland’s operating system that would lead any Campylobacter infection” and that the company reinforces proper hand sanitation before and after handling any puppies, and has strict kennel sanitation protocols.

Campylobacter is a common cause of diarrheal illness in the US.

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Campylobacteriosis is the infection caused by the Campylobacter bacteria, and it infects up to 1.3 million people each year. "The typical symptoms include diarrhea, fever, nausea, and abdominal cramping. But some people who get infected, especially healthy adults with robust immune systems, might not have any symptoms at all," Philip Tierno, PhD, clinical professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU Langone told BuzzFeed News.

The illness usually lasts for one week and almost all people recover without any specific treatment. "The immunosuppressed, such as HIV-positive individuals or cancer or transplant patients, might experience more severe symptoms or develop an infection that requires medical treatment," Tierno says. Pregnant women, young children, and the elderly are also more susceptible. And in very rare cases, it can be fatal, says Tierno.

In either case, you won’t know if you have Campylobacter unless you get examined by a doctor. "Many people will get sick and say, 'Oh, I have food poisoning' or something, but you don't know exactly what caused your symptoms unless a doctor tests your stool sample," Tierno says. So if you're concerned, maybe go get checked out.

Though it can spread to people through contact with poop from an infected dog, infections are usually foodborne.

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Campylobacter is zoonotic, Tierno says, which means that humans pick up the organism from animals or animal products. This could happen from handling animals, coming into contact with areas where they live or defecate, or consuming animal products. And sure, many germs from animals are harmless so you don't need to panic about them, but zoonotic infections can make people very sick.

An infection with Campylobacter is usually linked to eating undercooked meat contaminated with the animal's feces, unpasteurized dairy, or other food that was cross-contaminated during while being prepared. "It's very common in cattle and poultry, we just don't hear about it as often as other things like salmonella or shigella," Tierno says. The disease isn't usually transmitted between people.

We usually don't think of adorable, fluffy puppies or dogs as carriers of disease, but they can pass Campylobacter to humans just like any other barnyard animal.

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"Typically if you get it from a dog, it's from contact with the dog's feces, which usually happens when you pick up after a dog, then touch your face or eat food with your dirty hands, which can introduce the fecal material into your system and make you sick," John de Jong, president-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told BuzzFeed News.

It's actually not uncommon for puppies to have Campylobacter, and it's easily spread if the animals live in close quarters.

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"I'd say about 45–50% of puppies have it, and usually when they're less than six months because they have poor immune systems," Tierno says. Dogs can get Campylobacter from contaminated food, water, or exposure to feces from an infected animal. "It's transmitted easily between dogs, often when the dog licks their paws after stepping in feces or gets too close when sniffing another dog's backside," de Jong says.

However, when an outbreak occurs, it usually comes down to a lack of cleanliness in an environment. "If there's feces or fecal matter with the bacteria on an object or surface, such as a cage or a shared water bowl, this can quickly spread the infection to the other dogs that share the space," de Jong says. Be wary if you go to adopt a puppy and there's diarrhea or vomit in a shared cage, the experts say — that may be a warning sign that the dogs are sick.

For people, symptoms of Campylobacter infections are often obvious and unpleasant, but dogs might not have any symptoms and seem perfectly healthy.

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"Dogs can carry it and they may or may not show any signs of illness," de Jong says. So even if a dog looks and acts healthy, it can still be infected and spread the disease to other animals and people.

"The clinical signs of Campylobacter in dogs are diarrhea and nausea, but these also mimic the symptoms of other viral and parasitic infections, so you'll need a veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis from a stool sample," says de Jong.

If you do suspect your dog is sick, de Jong suggests bringing them to a veterinarian to get checked out. "If the diarrhea is Campylobacter it may go away on its own, but if it's a more serious infection your dog may need additional treatment from the vet, like antibiotics or deworming pills," de Jong says. The CDC advises pet owners with a sick dog that was recently adopted to notify the shelter, breeder, or pet store about the dog's illness as soon as possible.

How can you stay safe? ALWAYS wash your hands with soap and water after touching, feeding, or cleaning up after dogs — and make sure children do the same.

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"Regardless of where they are from, any puppies and dogs may carry Campylobacter germs," the CDC reports. So if you've come into contact with a dog and you don't know if it's sick, you should thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds afterward. "And always wash your hands before you touch your face, eat, or drink, because this is how the bacteria gets from the fingers into your body," Tierno says. Read more on proper handwashing technique here.

If it seems a little over the top to wash your hands every time you pet a dog, you can use hand sanitizer instead. Or, if you can’t clean your hands at all, just don't touch your mouth or eat afterwards. “Act the same as you would if you just visited a petting zoo,” de Jong says. Pet owners can also take extra precautions (in addition to handwashing) while cleaning up after their pets, like using latex or vinyl gloves and an extra bag if it's a ~messy situation~.

And yes, this means you probably shouldn't let your dog lick your mouth or face (or anyone else's).

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We're sorry, but puppy kisses are actually not a great idea — especially if it isn't your own pet. If the dog licks your mouth and face, or any skin with an open wound like a cut or pimple, it can transmit not only Campylobacter, but other germs that can make you sick. "It's better to be safe," Tierno says.

At the very least, don't do it if you suspect your dog might be sick. "It may be okay if you know your dog is healthy and they just lick your cheek, and you wash it afterward, but always use proper judgement and precaution," de Jong says. Not to mention, you really have no idea what was in your dog's mouth beforehand — it could've been a tennis ball or goose poop.

As for Petland, the investigation is ongoing and the CDC will continue to search for the outbreak source.

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Finding the outbreak source, whether it is a Petland store, a breeder, or a person, will help the CDC recommend how to stop the outbreak and prevent future illnesses among both animals and people.

This isn't the first time Petland has been in the spotlight for sick puppies — in July they were hit with a nationwide consumer class action lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a national legal advocacy organization for animals. The lawsuit alleges that Petland "engaged in a fraudulent scheme to sell sick 'puppy mill' puppies to consumers at premium prices based on fraudulent health guarantees."

Petland claims that it only sells puppies from breeders and distributors who are licensed by the USDA and have no violations on their federal inspection reports. It also says that every animal is checked by two to three veterinarians and issued a health certificate before being offered to customers. However, the ALDF alleges that these certifications from Petland veterinarians could be a "sham," and that if customers got a healthy puppy it would be by pure chance.

Petland maintains that it has systems in place to ensure every animal's well-being once it is accepted into its stores for future purchase.

Caroline Kee is a health writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Caroline Kee at caroline.kee@buzzfeed.com.

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