What started as a serious alert has now expanded into a growing crisis for Toronto Public Health officials. The story first came to public attention on January 23.
An adorable eight week-old border collie puppy mix, similar to the puppy romping in the photo, had died from rabies at the Toronto Humane Society on January 14th. He was one of about a dozen canines sold at Dr. Flea’s, a popular weekend bargain market at Highway 27 and Albion Road.
The city put out a plea to anyone who may have been there that day and had any contact with the animals to immediately call them and their doctors.
“This is very serious,” states Dr. Rosana Pellizzari, with Toronto Public Health. “Rabies should be treated as a fatal illness.”
Officials believe that hundreds, and possible thousands of people may now have come into contact with rabid dogs at Dr. Flea’s market in north Toronto on Jan. 3.
No one is sure how many people actually passed by booth 1513 called “Pets R Us” or had been to the vendor’s home location, “Feed Me More Pets”, in Chesley, Ontario near Walkerton. “Pets R Us” owner, Omar Tannous, has been selling animals at the flea market for the past 18 months.
The mother of the border collie cross pups was a family pet at a local farm, but was not vaccinated against rabies. After delivering the pups, she killed a skunk that was likely rabid. The pups probably got the rabies from their mother’s saliva. The mother died, as did some of the pups. The family, unaware of the rabies, sold three of the puppies to the “Feed Me More Pets” dog broker.
Licensed and responsible breeders don’t sell dogs at flea markets.
And once the dogs were taken home by their new owners, others who weren’t even at either location were added to the list of potential victims.
The infected puppy was being held with 10 to 12 other dogs in the booth. They had all been sold and health officials believe they have all been infected with rabies. At least three different breeds are involved.
The infected puppy and one other dog in the group have died, both within days of being purchased. So far, six of the dogs have been located, including the two that died. They are being held in quarantine for the next six months.
Nathan Kales, a vendor at the flea market, went through his first round of vaccines, along with his wife and 5-year old son.Kales’ family likely came in contact with a rabid puppy on Jan. 12, when he took home a golden retriever from “Pets R Us”.
“The thing was half dead when I got him home,” Kales said. “It was drooling, it was coughing, it was wheezing. I never saw a dog that sick before.”
Kales said the dog licked his son’s leg and had minor contact with his pet cat and Doberman pinscher. He placed the sick puppy in a pen in the basement.
The next day, he took the dog back to the vendor, explained how sick it was, and left it with him.
“He later told me someone else bought it. I said, `You’re kidding me,'” said Kales, whose cat and dog are now quarantined in his home.
Concerns arose after a sick dog bit a worker at the Toronto Humane Society about one week ago.
The infected eight-week-old puppy that prompted the alarm had been bought by Yanitza Arredondo of Brampton for her son. The puppy had been surrendered to the THS once the owners realized the puppy they bought at the flea market was violently ill. Complaining that the veterinary costs would be too high, they dumped the puppy with THS. The border collie cross died later that night, and test results showed it had rabies.
The rare but deadly disease is most often spread by an infected animal biting someone. But it can also be contracted through contact with saliva, so a simple lick on the hand could be enough.
Rabies can lie dormant in an infected animal for up to six months. However, people can become infected by their pets even before the animal begins to show symptoms of the illness.
Humans cannot pass rabies to other humans. If treated early enough, the vaccine is “extremely effective” against rabies. However, rabies is fatal if left untreated.
The worker who was bitten by the dog has received rabies shots and is doing fine, but health officials say others may still be at risk.
As for the vendor in question, he’s no longer allowed to sell dogs at the market, so he’ll be free to get his rabies shots and go elsewhere unless his operation is shut down altogether. Allen Koffman, who runs Dr. Flea’s, notes that the market doesn’t bear the blame for the problem; it’s just the “venue”. Yanitza and her family, concerned about the rounds of rabies vaccine they’ll have to endure, probably don’t see the part they play in encouraging puppy millers to profit and thrive. Once she gets over this “big mess”, Yanitza might just head out to a pet shop to get another puppy. No worries; they’re disposable.
Tre Smith, of the Toronto Humane Society, cautions anyone who considers buying an animal at venues such as flea markets to realize that they are not getting any bargains or guarantees.
“Licensed and responsible breeders don’t sell dogs at flea markets for 200 dollars”, said Smith.
New questions are being raised about how the man selling the dogs was allowed to do so without anyone checking on their health. “Right now the only law that we can actually apply to it … is the O.S.P.C.A. Act, which tells us that the animals are to have adequate shelter, adequate food, adequate water. That’s a really vague kind of definition,” says Toronto Humane Society spokesman Lee Oliver. “And beyond that there’s nothing. There’s no rules saying that the breeding animals are to have a health check.”
He hopes people considering adopting a dog will take a lesson from this emergency, and only deal with agencies they’re sure about.
Mix up puppy millers, flea markets and clueless consumers and, even without rabies, you’re asking for trouble. And if you think pet stores are much better with their networks of “reputable breeders”, think again. Maybe Yanitza and the others who visited booth 1513 will do just that.