BOSTON -- What began as an epidemic among New England greyhounds is looking more and more like a national outbreak, with reports of sick and dying dogs pouring in from as far away as Arizona.
Florida officials yesterday said the disease has turned up in the northern part of that state, in the south and along the Gulf of Mexico. Alabama veterinarians say dogs there died of the same symptoms six weeks ago, six months ago and three years ago. And 25 more dogs were reported sick yesterday at Wonderland Park in Revere, Mass.
Some racing officials believe the different outbreaks may have a common source: breeding kennels in Oklahoma. Others say the illness spreads so easily and dogs move so often that its roots may never be unearthed.
"It's probably something that's been smoldering and now has turned into a conflagration . . . it's causing all kinds of problems," said John Gaskin, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Whatever the origin, Gaskin said the solution is "for everyone to vaccinate and get a booster. That's the kind of move we need to get this under control."
Symptoms reported among sick dogs are remarkably similar in state after state: fever, lethargy, gastrointestinal troubles and a hacking cough that in later stages sounds like pneumonia. In most cases, the illness responds to treatment, but sometimes it's fatal.
The disease comes in two stages. The first appears to be influenza, distemper or some other virus that, according to Wonderland vet Thomas Murtha, compromises a dog's defenses against disease and "lets bacteria in." Gary Yocham, a vet who has treated the outbreak in Phoenix, says the stresses of racing or traveling could be as disruptive as a virus.
The second stage involves an invasion of bacteria, generally streptococcus zooepidemicus.
The disease has killed 13 greyhounds in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts, left hundreds of others sick there and in Rhode Island, and curtailed racing across New England.
Florida has been hit nearly as hard in recent weeks: Four or five dogs died and 20 fell sick at Ebro Greyhound Park near Panama City, 12 turned up ill at kennels serving Miami area tracks, and six dogs died, 20 were euthanized and another 116 became sick at Pensacola Greyhound Track.
In Arizona, 15-20 dogs were sick and two died from symptoms "very, very similar" to ones in New England, said Yocham, who works for several kennels near Phoenix. In Alabama, state veterinary pathologist George D'Andrea said he has examined two dogs that died this year from "that same syndrome with zooepidemicus."
"I speculate that's the tip of the iceberg," D'Andrea added. "Most don't come to our diagnostic lab."
There's one more theme of the outbreak from Arizona to Massachusetts to Florida: In case after case, trainers, vets and other officials say the dogs that fell sick first were shipped from breeders in Oklahoma.
It could be a coincidence, or because many of the nation's biggest breeders are there. Or, as many racing officials say, it could be the link that explains why so many cases have broken out at farflung places at the same time.
But Joe Alexander, dean of Oklahoma State University's veterinary school and an expert on greyhound breeding, said he hasn't heard of outbreaks in breeding kennels in his state. Breeders in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma are exceedingly worried about the disease, he added, which is why they're "not taking in dogs from the outside at the present time."