NEW COYOTE DANGER; ANIMAL DISEASE COULD BE THREAT TO HUMANS.
Coyotes roaming the hills of Los Angeles carry at least one disease previously undetected locally, which in rare situations could pose a threat to people and their pets, public health authorities said.
Veterinarians are voicing new fears because a dog that was bitten by a coyote in Woodland Hills has contracted the rare disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked a researcher to investigate the illness, which surfaced in a Danish schipperkes dog that was bitten by a coyote June 13. It contracted what a veterinarian believes is a strain of bartonella.
The dog has had a 104-degree fever and its eyes were bleeding internally, causing blindness. The owner feared she would have to put her dog to sleep, but the dog seems to be recovering.
``I think the situation is a lot worse than they are telling people,'' said Julie Didier, who owns 6-year-old Sugar Bear. ``I think it's a political hot potato, and they don't want to face the facts that these coyotes are overpopulated here.''
As a result of the Woodland Hills case and others, researchers are investigating whether Bartonella vinsonii found in about 30 percent of coyotes in California could be transmitted to people.
County health authorities performed routine investigations of diseases in coyotes until 1993 when the City Council placed severe limitations on trapping, essentially ending the practice. They said they have tested coyote carcasses periodically since and found coyotes carry many diseases: babesiosis, blastomycosis, canine hepatitis, hepatozoonosis, histoplasmosis, hookworms, scabies, American trypanosomiasis and the plague.
Patrick Ryan, chief of veterinary public health at the county Department of Health Services, said it's unlikely people could get one of those diseases from a coyote, but their dogs and cats could be at risk.
``As far as we've found, coyotes at this point are not a disease threat,'' Ryan said. ``When studying an animal you will find various diseases. However, finding diseases is not necessarily a reason to reduce the animal's population.''
Between 1986 and 1993, 23 coyotes tested positive for plague. Several of the coyotes were from locations within the city. A known epidemic of bubonic plague was reported in the Griffith Park area. Other plague sites included Burbank, Glendale, La Canada-Flintridge and Sunland.
Dr. Shirley Fannin, director of disease control programs in the county, said the biggest threat coyotes pose are attacks on people, especially children.
``They are also canines so we are always watching them to see if they have rabies,'' she said. ``I'm sure there are quite a few diseases they are prone to.''
In the case of Bartonella vinsonii, the disease has been found in only one human, a Wyoming rancher who survived the disease that causes swelling of the lymph nodes and infections of the heart and eyes.
The rancher is believed to have gotten the disease from a tick, but it's not known if the tick was infected by a coyote.
Edward Breitschwerdt, professor of medicine and infectious diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University, intends to obtain blood samples of the dog and has talked with Didier's veterinarian. He wants to determine if Didier's dog has Bartonella vinsonii and if it's possible for Didier or other people to contract it.
Didier's veterinarian refused to comment.
``We deal primarily with human health and public health issues at the CDC,'' said Chris Paddock, medical officer with the Viral and Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch of the CDC in Atlanta, Ga. He referred Didier's call about her dog to Breitschwerdt, a bartonella expert.
``But we will field calls related to animal health if someone has an expertise in that area. The most important thing is that the animal is treated appropriately. If it turns out there is a public health issue related to this, I'm certain Breitschwerdt will contact us, and we will work with him on it.''
Bartonella vinsonii is a strain in the same family as cat scratch fever, a disease contracted by the scratch of a cat, and trench fever, a disease contracted from lice that was prevalent among soldiers in World War I.
Breitschwerdt first discovered Bartonella vinsonii in a dog's blood in 1994 in his laboratory. Further research determined that a large percentage of coyotes carried the disease.
University of California, Davis, veterinary epidemiologist Bruno Chomel said researchers tested more than 900 coyotes throughout California for the disease and discovered about 30 percent of the coyotes in Southern California carry the disease.
The research was triggered by the case of a child bitten by a coyote in Santa Clara County. The child did not contract Bartonella vinsonii but another disease.
The results of the study are expected to be published by the CDC this month.
Chomel said researchers are trying to determine if coyotes transmit disease directly or through fleas or ticks.
``The big question we are looking at with coyotes is if the infection is transmitted by fleas or ticks,'' he said. ``If it's transmitted by ticks, could those ticks bite humans and transit it to humans?''
``This is really under the auspices of an emerging infectious disease,'' Breitschwerdt said. ``That is why the CDC is involved in the bartonella work because it could infect animals as well as people.''
Prior to the city enacting a trapping ban on coyotes in 1993, the county studied diseases in coyotes.
``One way the coyote can benefit the community is acting as a disease sentinel or early warning system,'' Ryan said.
KEEPING SAFE FROM COYOTES
The county Department of Health Services offers these tips for protecting against coyotes:
Keep small pets indoors at night unless carefully supervised.
Obey leash laws; don't let pets roam.
Report coyote encounters to authorities.
Pick up pet food at night. Remove fallen fruit, especially avocados. Store trash in containers with tight lids.
Enclose back yards.
Clear brush and dense weeds around yards.
Diseases the county health department has detected in area coyotes include:
Babesiosis, a parasite of the red blood cells that affects a variety of animals and occasionally people. The disease is transmitted by ticks. Symptoms may be fever, anemia, jaundice or reddish urine.
Blastomycosis, a fungal infection most commonly found in people, dogs and cats. It is found in soil and when the soil is stirred up, the organism is aerosolized and can be inhaled. The lungs are often infected, with symptoms of fever and coughing.
Canine hepatitis, a viral disease seen in dogs and coyotes. Symptoms vary from fever to death. The disease does not affect people.
Hepatozoonosis, a dog disease transmitted by ticks, with symptoms of fever and emaciation. The disease does not affect people.
Histoplasmosis, a fungal infection of people and animals contracted from soil that contains bat or bird manure. The disease can be fatal but is treatable.
Hookworms, a roundworm that lives in the digestive tracts of canines, sucking blood and causing anemia. The larva can penetrate human skin and cause ``creeping eruptions.''
Scabies, a disease of the skin caused by mites that causes crusts and scabs on the body. In dogs and coyotes affected, areas include the ears, elbows and face. People can obtain the parasite by handling infected animals. Symptoms in people include scratching and small red dots on the skin where it was in contact with infected animals.
Plague, a disease transmitted by infected fleas. Most infected coyotes and dogs do not develop symptoms of the disease. But infected cats develop the disease similar to that in people. Infected cats run a fever, develop tender, swollen lymph nodes and may die.
Box: KEEPING SAFE FROM COYOTES (See text)