Thursday, March 6, 2014

Tracking infectious diseases in dogs and cats: Disease WatchDog

Dogs being vaccinated by the RSPCA team during a parvovirus outbreak in 2013 (image reproduced with permission of the RSPCA).
Here at SAT we're all for the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases. You know, good old parvovirus, distemper, adenovirus, parainfluenza, tick paralysis. But prevention means knowing your enemy, and when it comes to infectious disease that means knowing pockets where these are emerging, reappearing and (hopefully) disappearing.

Thanks to technology, pet owners and vets can now suss out the incidence of these diseases in their neighbourhoods. Aside from treating individual animals, vets can contribute vital information which can be used to target life-saving programs.

Australian veterinarian Dr Mark Kelman was generous enough to post about Disease WatchDog, an initiative he founded to keep tabs on outbreaks of infectious diseases. 

Take it away Dr Kelman...

Four years ago, an Australian vet with an inspiration started a project to encourage his colleagues to report and share cases of pet diseases – so that everyone could see where disease was happening and try and do something about it. This had never been done before but with the available technology it soon became a reality. As well as reporting cases, we could map them and help communicate where outbreaks were occurring.

Over this time, we’ve recorded nearly 20,000 cases, with numbers increasing every day. Sadly, many of these cases have ended in deaths or great suffering. But our goals is reduce the suffering and try and prevent as many cases of disease as we can.

Sydney cases, over 12 months to March 2014: (source:
We called the project “Disease WatchDog” and set up an online database where veterinary clinics from all over Australia could log cases of dog and cat diseases in an effort to encourage communication, raise awareness and ultimately hope to stop the spread of infections.

Back then, we had no idea how many cases of disease vets see across Australia. We knew that under-reporting would be an issue, because it takes a (small) amount of time to record cases and everyone is busy. Under-reporting still is an issue today and only 10% of clinics regularly report cases, which gives you an idea of how many cases disease really might be occurring every year around the country.

Melbourne cases, over 12 months to March 2014: (source:
The diseases we started with were the worst viruses – Canine Parvovirus, Canine Distemper, Hepatitis, and Cat Flu (Feline Herpes Virus and Feline Calicivirus). We added tick paralysis to the system in mid-2010, and have added more diseases since. To date, we have seen 6,118 cases of parvo and 10,014 cases of tick paralysis. Sadly, our stats show that around half of the parvo cases will die. Slightly more cheerful news is that around 95% of tick paralysis cases will pull through (in most cases with vet treatment).

We also track Canine Cough, Feline Infectious Peritonitis, Heartworm, Canine Neural Angiostrongylosis, FIV, Feline Leukaemia, and Feline Panleucopenia.

Brisbane cases, over 12 months to March 2014: (source:
We set up a New Zealand disease tracking project as well (from the same website) and we are about to re-launch this to our Kiwi cousins after some big updates late last year.

As well as the website (which, if you are interested, is we also have a smart-phone friendly site (same URL) which is enabled for public access.

Vet clinics log cases on the PC version, but both the smartphone version and the PC can be used for general public access. As well as being able to see disease maps, there is also disease information, links to media articles about disease outbreaks and the ability to find a local vet – in case you have questions about disease prevention or treatment.

Adelaide  cases, over 12 months to March 2014: (source:
We aren’t just about mapping disease though. Since we started, every year, we have run several research projects in collaboration with the Sydney University Veterinary School. These projects examine the vast data we have collected and try to provide information on the diseases we see. These are final year honours projects which forms the research component of some students’ veterinary degree. These research projects have all culminated in published research in quality journals, the topics have included: Canine parvovirus in Australia - The role of socio-economic factors in disease clusters; Risk factors for death from canine parvoviral-related disease in Australia; Surveillance of upper respiratory tract disease in owned cats in Australia, 2009-2012; Distribution, seasonality and risk factors for tick paralysis in Australian dogs and cats.

We are currently working on several more research projects – including tracking two less-common diseases in Australia, and seeing if we can link two disease’s outbreaks to weather patterns.

The other thing we’ve been able to do is to identify disease outbreaks and working with local vets, Virbac and the RSPCA, providing vaccines and resources to start targeted disease-prevention programs and help stop outbreaks as they occur. We started this in 2013 and were able to help during a severe Parvovirus outbreak in the Hunter Region of NSW. We are yet to re-analyse the data, but anecdotally this targeted vaccination program seemed to make a difference and the outbreak was brought under control.

What a parvovirus outbreak looks like on paper (source:
Veterinary clinics logging cases can use the maps to educate clients on the risk of diseases in their area – both where they live, and where they might be travelling to with their pets. Vet clients might access the disease maps on their smart-phones while they wait to see a vet at the clinic. During puppy preschool the maps make great learning tools as to why disease prevention is so important.

Any veterinary clinics wanting to participate should register at A kit is sent to all clinics with posters and information on how to use the system (which is designed to be easy and quick to use).

We are happy to take media enquiries too – at or 02 9772 9772.

Ultimately, our goal is that by working together, we can reduce and even eradicate pet diseases from Australia and the world.

Dr Mark Kelman is the Technical Services Manager at Virbac, an Australian Animal Health company. He founded Disease WatchDog in 2010. Mark can be found on LinkedIn.