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Veterinarian links 8 pets' ills to dog park

He says dog owners should not be alarmed. Some dogs have the giardia parasite but don't get sick.

By DEBORAH HIRSCH
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 3, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- In five years at the Northeast Animal Hospital, Dr. Mark Scribano had seen just a few cases of giardiasis, a nasty intestinal disease caused by parasitic protozoa that can infect both dogs and people.

In the past two months, he has treated about eight dogs with the affliction, and he wondered if there was a connection.

Only one thing has surfaced so far: All of the canines spend time at the dog park at Crescent Lake, a few blocks from the veterinarian's Fourth Street N practice.

"All in all, I think there was enough evidence to get the city to investigate," Scribano said. "Giardia (the parasite) is something we don't see very often. I was trying to keep track of it because it was unusual."

In response, parks director Dell Holmes contacted the county Health Department and the city's environmental lab testing services. No testing is planned yet at the dog park, which attracts 160-200 daily visitors, but Holmes said he would continue looking for more information on how to handle the situation.

Scribano cautioned dog owners not to be overly concerned. He said many dogs come into contact with giardia, or even host the parasite, without being affected.

About 14 percent of adult dogs and 30 percent of puppies 1 year old or younger test positive for giardiasis, according to the Priory veterinarian Web pages. Dogs with weak immune systems, such as puppies and old or sick dogs, are most at risk.

"I would be confident that walking a dog in an area with giardia, if it's a healthy dog, it would not get giardia," Scribano said.

Giardia may be found in soil, food, water or the feces of an infected animal. With its protective outer shell, the parasite can survive for long periods outside of a host animal, especially in cool, moist areas.

The disease is spread through contact with surfaces that have been contaminated with the parasite. Symptoms in humans and dogs first may be confused with normal indigestion. Diarrhea, cramping, bloating, weight loss or dehydration might begin about a week after the parasite is ingested. The infection usually lasts from two to six weeks.

It is unclear how often dog-to-human transmission occurs, but it can happen.

"It absolutely depends on the person's immune system," Scribano said. "If a dog has giardia, I'm not worried about the person unless they're undergoing chemotherapy or something that would suppress their immune system."

In Pinellas County, 13 cases of giardiasis in humans have been reported this year -- an average number, said Dr. Julia Gill, epidemiology program manager for the county Health Department. The Centers for Disease Control says the malady has become one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in humans in the United States.

Scribano said a 10-day treatment, plus office visit, stool analysis and antibiotics cost about $75. The recent cases have been more difficult to cure, sometimes requiring a month of treatments, he said. There is also a giardia vaccine available for canines.

St. Petersburg has dog parks at Crescent Lake and in Coquina Key. The romping grounds are so popular that the city is proposing dog runs at Lake Vista, Walter Fuller and North Shore parks.

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