Do you ever field-dress feral hogs without wearing gloves? Do you forget to wash your hands with soap and water after handling hogs or their meat? Do you hunt with dogs or feed your dogs uncooked feral hog meat or trimmings? If so, you and your dogs may be at risk of serious illness.
Wild hogs carry many diseases that can be transmitted to humans, dogs and domestic pigs. Swine brucellosis, pseudorabies and parasitic diseases are the most serious diseases carried by feral hogs. You can minimize your risk of disease by taking certain precautions and understanding the signs and symptoms of infection.
Brucella is a bacterial organism that causes brucellosis and can affect many species, including humans, swine, dogs, cattle and goats. Swine brucellosis may cause abortions in sows, severe illness and weakness in young pigs and infertility in boars. When feral hogs are allowed to reproduce with domestic pigs, decreased reproduction rates from infected sows and boars and illness in young animals can decrease profits for swine producers. Infected swine are carriers for life; there is no effective treatment. The organism is easily spread through reproductive discharges, afterbirth, blood, urine, saliva and other tissues.
Dogs may contract brucellosis from feral hogs, just as humans can. In a recent survey of hog hunters in Georgia, almost a third (29 percent) reported using dogs when hunting feral hogs. Since March 2011, there have been nine reported cases of brucellosis in dogs in Georgia, two of which were confirmed to be infected with the swine strain. This is a dramatic increase over the number of cases reported this time last year. Most of the infected dogs were used for hunting feral swine, but some non-hunting dogs became infected by contact with hunting dogs (through urine or breeding) or by eating uncooked hog meat or scraps.
The signs of brucellosis in dogs are similar to those in pigs. Female dogs (bitches) may not be able to get pregnant, may lose their litters late in pregnancy (45 days after breeding or later) or may have an unusual discharge that lasts for a long time after whelping or aborting the litter. Puppies born alive may be weak and die within days. Dogs may have an inflamed prostate, testicles that are either very swollen or have shrunken in size, or may be unable to get a bitch pregnant. One or both testicles may be affected. Both dogs and bitches may have intermittent fever and enlarged lymph nodes or be sluggish and unwilling to breed. The bacteria can cause very serious bone infections that may go undetected for a long time and cause severe joint or back pain.
The spread of brucellosis through dog breeding can be prevented. Veterinarians can test dogs to determine whether or not the dog is infected. Infected dogs should not be bred and should be spayed or neutered immediately to minimize the spread of disease to other dogs and humans. Infected dogs must be treated with a long course of antibiotics and often are not cured. Relapses are common, and dogs may continue to shed bacteria, potentially infecting other dogs and people. In most cases, dogs with brucellosis must be euthanized because of the risk of infection to their owners.
The best way to avoid having to put down a beloved pet or hunting dog is to prevent your dog from becoming infected. Do not feed uncooked hog meat or scraps to dogs, and try to reduce the amount of contact dogs have with feral hogs.
Take catch-dogs off of the hog as soon as possible and immediately clean and disinfect any bites or scratches your dog sustains during a hunt. Rinsing your dogs’ mouths out may reduce the risk of infection if it is done immediately after contact with feral hogs. Dental rinses containing chlorhexidine are available at most pet stores and veterinary clinics.
Use a disinfectant to clean kennels daily and take caution so urine is not splashed into other kennels, potentially infecting other dogs. Dogs used to hunt feral hogs should be tested once or twice per year to detect early infection. Any animal known to be infected should be immediately isolated from other dogs. If you suspect your dog may be infected, contact your veterinarian.
Humans can also get brucellosis from wild hogs. In Georgia, between two and 10 human infections are reported each year. Most people are infected with the swine strain, although a few cases originating from goats have also been reported. People are infected most commonly by contact with blood, fluid or tissue while field dressing or butchering an infected hog. Humans can also get brucellosis by eating undercooked meat from an infected hog.
In a recent survey, more than 40 percent of hunters reported they regularly field-dress or butcher feral hogs (43.8 percent and 45.1 percent respectively). Twenty-five percent of hunters reported cutting themselves while handling a feral hog. More than half of hunters reported always washing their hands with soap and water after handling feral hogs; however, only 33 percent reported wearing gloves every time they handle feral hogs or uncooked meat. Two-thirds of hunters reported eating feral hog meat.
Symptoms of brucellosis in humans include flu-like symptoms and may start as little as a week or as long as a few months after contact with the bacteria. Common symptoms are fever, chills, sweating, headache, low appetite, fatigue, joint pain and muscle pain. If you have been handling hogs or hog meat and you have any of these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Let them know you have had contact with feral hogs.
Brucellosis in humans can be effectively treated, unlike in swine and dogs. Antibiotics are prescribed for at least six weeks. If medication is taken correctly, most people will not have relapses. However, in a few cases, brucellosis causes long-term illness in humans.
You can protect yourself by practicing safe field dressing and food preparation techniques. When field dressing or butchering a hog that you have killed, use clean, sharp knives to reduce the risk of slipping; wear rubber or latex gloves and eye protection when handling hogs or their meat; avoid direct contact (bare skin) with fluid or organs from the hog; wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling hogs.
When preparing or storing meat from feral hogs, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; clean working surfaces with hot, soapy water; separate raw pork from cooked pork and other foods; cook pork to an internal temperature of 160° F using a food thermometer; chill raw and cooked pork promptly.
For more information on brucellosis, visit Georgia Department of Public Health website at <health.state.ga.us/epi/zvbd/zoonotic/index.asp>.
The Threat Of Pseudorabies
Another threat to hunting dogs is a virus pigs carry called pseudorabies. It is not related to the rabies virus many are familiar with.
When infected, newborn piglets may die soon after birth, but if they survive, rarely show any symptoms and can be life-long carriers. Humans are not susceptible, but dogs and most other fur-bearing animals can contract the disease which is also known as Aujesky’s Disease or the mad itch. Infected animals typically have consumed raw pork or have come in contact with feral hogs during a hunt.
Most animals that contract the virus die within 48 to 72 hours. Pseudorabies is almost always fatal in dogs. The first sign is a sudden change in behavior such as lethargy or depression. Some animals may become aggressive or anxious. Difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, fluctuating body temperature and excessive salivation may be noticed. The most obvious symptom is severe itching of the head and neck. Affected animals may violently scratch or rub their heads against solid objects. Scratching can be so frantic that dogs have seizures. Just before dying, the dog may appear disoriented or paralyzed.
Since most dogs die quickly from the disease, the best way to diagnose pseudorabies is to examine neurologic tissues after death. Both domestic and feral swine can undergo a blood test to determine disease status. If pseudorabies is suspected, euthanasia is recommended for dogs.
The best means of preventing pseudorabies infections in dogs are the same as for brucellosis. There have not been any confirmed cases of pseudorabies in Georgia dogs in 15 years, but many owners do not seek a diagnosis for dead animals. It is suspected dogs have been infected but not diagnosed.
Pseudorabies has been found in both feral and domestic swine in Georgia. Feral swine can easily transmit the virus to domestic pigs penned in outside enclosures.
Protect Yourself While Handling Hogs
When dressing or butchering a hog:
• Use clean, sharp knives to reduce risk of slipping and cutting yourself.
• Wear rubber or latex gloves and eye protection when handling hogs or their meat.
• Avoid direct contact (bare skin) with fluid or organs from the hog.
• Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling hogs.
When working with feral hog meat:
• Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
• Clean all working surfaces with hot, soapy water.
• Separate raw pork from cooked pork and other foods.
• Cook pork to an internal temperature of 160° F using a food thermometer.
• Chill raw or cooked pork promptly.
Protect Your Dogs During And After The Hunt
After Your Dogs Catch A Feral Hog:
• Pull them off the pig as soon as possible.
• Clean and disinfect any wounds in the field and as soon as possible.
• Rinse your dogs’ mouths out with water and/or a dental disinfectant.
• Never feed dogs raw pork.
• Clean and disinfect kennels daily.
• Have hunting dogs tested once or twice a year for brucellosis.
• Isolate dogs suspected or known to be infected with brucellosis or pseudorabies.