Leveraging big veterinary data to support our communities

April 22, 2020
Chris Carpenter, DVM, MBA

The CEO of the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) explains how COVID-19 elevates the role of veterinary teams in safeguarding the health of both pets and people.

Millions of Americans check COVID-19 maps daily to track the virus in their local community. Maps that offer the most current, local data to track disease risk across the country are a powerful tool—and one that veterinarians have relied on for almost a decade.

For nearly 10 years, the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) has shared timely local disease data—county by county across the nation—via prevalence maps. Through our unique partnership with major veterinary laboratories, CAPC has developed expertise in using “big data” to provide information on disease prevalence to veterinarians, pet owners and other medical professionals. More importantly, CAPC has leveraged these data to become the leader in forecasting diseases that threaten both pets and people.

Because most people now understand that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had an animal origin, the COVID-19 outbreak has made the public acutely aware of the close relationship between animal and human health. This relationship amplifies the critical role of veterinarians in protecting the health of animals and humans—along with the environment—in a One Health approach to medicine in our world.

This heightened emphasis of One Health and disease monitoring has prompted CAPC to share what we’ve learned over the past decade and forecast what information and services veterinarians will need from this point forward. Here are three things every practice needs to understand.

Local and timely are key

How many cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in St. Johns County, Florida today? You don’t know? Well, everyone in St. Johns County knows. Why? Because local data are important to them. They also want the latest data—not information from a month ago.

This is the same need CAPC has seen with its prevalence and forecast maps. People want local and timely information. Moving forward, veterinary teams will need to be the experts on disease prevalence in their communities, particularly when it comes to zoonotic diseases.

Throughout the past decade, CAPC has validated this need again and again in both published and nonpublished research. In a nationwide survey conducted in 2014, for example, 90% of pet owners told us they wanted their veterinarian to share parasite prevalence numbers for their county. And when a group of over 400 hospitals in the Northeast U.S. shared local data on Lyme disease prevalence, they saw a 58% jump in hospital visits over the next 90 days.

People don’t want the “overall trend,” the “national average” or last year’s data. They want to know what is happening in their community right now. To be regarded as the local expert and an essential service in the community, veterinary teams need to stay current on disease activity in their area and, more importantly, make sure they are sharing that information continually both in practice and on social media.

Travel has changed everything

As a member of the CAPC statistical team once said, “The data is always right, you just have to know what it is telling you.” Consider what happened when CAPC began looking closely at local testing trends on a monthly basis. Specifically, CAPC was looking at the monthly increase in percent positive cases of heartworm for counties across the U.S.

When we examined results for months spanning multiple years, we saw that counties in Colorado consistently ranked high for monthly jumps in percent positive cases. These data—and the monthly prevalence numbers we were seeing for a state that isn’t considered endemic for heartworm disease—were puzzling.

It was at this time that Jason Drake, DVM, DACVM, found data quantifying the high numbers of shelter animals brought into the state every year. From 2014 to 2017, more than 114,000 dogs were imported into Colorado from more than 130 animal shelters and rescue organizations. This was about 9.5% of the total estimated 2017 Colorado canine population of nearly 1.2 million dogs.1 More importantly, Dr. Drake found that the majority of these dogs were shipped to Colorado from states with higher heartworm prevalence. 

Animal transportation now plays a significant role in the movement of disease across our country. Whether shelter animals are being transported across state lines or pet owners are vacationing with their pets, travel changes everything. As Dr. Drake concluded, “Veterinarians in Colorado should no longer base heartworm testing and prevention recommendations on only historic heartworm risks and prevalence.”

It’s because travel is so disruptive that countries and states sealed their borders, canceled flights and are monitoring people coming into their area during this COVID-19 outbreak. Moving forward, veterinarians need to remember this. When they see positive test results for diseases not usually seen in their community, they should not immediately dismiss the results as erroneous or ignore them because they don’t meet with accepted paradigms. Instead, they should ask why and try to understand what the data are saying. Chances are that transportation of pets has caused an ecosystem disruption in your community.

The interconnectivity of human and animal disease: One Health

The COVID-19 outbreak has made people acutely aware of the relationship between animal and human health. Through the past decade, the scientific team at CAPC has been able to examine this relationship as it pertains to Lyme disease.

In 2019, CAPC researchers quantified the association between canine seroprevalence for the disease-causing bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and the human incidence of Lyme disease, the most prevalent tickborne disease in the U.S.2 Thanks to man’s best friend, people and their health care providers can now assess their risk for Lyme disease.

This work confirmed not only the importance of a One Health perspective, but also the critical role veterinary hospitals play in public health. Because dogs are tested annually for exposure to the pathogen that causes Lyme disease, CAPC researchers were able to study more than seven years of nationwide canine diagnostic data, representing more than 400 million data points. By combining sophisticated statistical modeling with these invaluable canine data, CAPC researchers were able to leverage the work of veterinary hospitals across the nation to benefit human medicine.

It is with this One Health perspective that CAPC leadership decided to move forward with a new resource for pet owners: PetDiseaseAlerts.org. This website was designed to forecast and alert pet owners and veterinary teams alike to outbreaks in their communities.

This month, we have launched our first disease alert maps for leptospirosis. Users can sign up to receive alerts via text or email. This resource gives veterinarians yet another way to confirm their status as a local expert and essential service provider to their community.

The way forward for veterinary hospital teams

Recent events have highlighted the strong relationship between human and animal health, and the rapid disruption that can occur when diseases change geographies through travel and transportation.

The recent popularity of disease tracking maps has reaffirmed the public’s desire to stay informed and updated on the activity in their communities in a timely matter. Moving forward, veterinary teams must embrace and emphasize their role as zoonotic disease experts and One Health champions. Through the prevalence maps at CAPCvet.org and the forecast and alert maps at PetDiseaseAlerts.org, veterinary teams can quickly and easily access the information they need to keep their communities informed and protected.

Dr. Carpenter is CEO of the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC), an independent not-for-profit foundation comprised of parasitologists, veterinarians, medical, public health and other professionals that provides information for the optimal control of internal and external parasites that threaten the health of pets and people.

References

  1. Drake J, Parrish RS. Dog importation and changes in heartworm prevalence in Colorado 2013-2017. Parasite Vectors. 2019;12(1):207.
  2. Liu Y, Nordone S, Yabsley M, et al. (2019). Quantifying the relationship between human Lyme disease and Borrelia burgdorferi exposure in domestic dogs. Geospatial Health 2019;14(1):10.4081/gh.2019.750.