SALT LAKE CITY — All right, everyone, back away from the puppy.
People in 12 states, including Utah, have been sickened by bacteria that federal health officials say is being transmitted through puppies — more specifically, from their poop.
The culprit is Campylobacter, spiral-shaped bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of poultry and cattle, and most often get into people when they eat undercooked chicken or drink unpasteurized milk.
The bacteria is one reason why it is so important to disinfect your kitchen counter when preparing food. The CDC says that a single drop of juice from a raw piece of chicken can cause campylobacteriosis, which causes diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever.
People also can contract campylobacteriosis from coming into contact with excrement from a dog or cat, which is what is causing the current outbreak in the U.S., the CDC says.
There were 39 reports of the illness in September, but the count had risen to 55 in a report released by the CDC on Tuesday. And given that most cases go undiagnosed or unreported, there are likely more.
Besides Utah, the other cases were reported in Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The CDC says some of the cases have been linked to puppies sold at an Ohio-based chain of stores called Petland, which has no locations in Utah but has two in Nevada.
The CDC believes the puppies from Petland are the source of the outbreak because, using whole genome sequencing, its scientists linked samples of Campylobachter isolated from the Petland puppies to samples from the stool of sick people.
Also, 14 of the infected people are Petland employees. Others are believed to have had contact with the puppies, and one is thought to have acquired the illness through sex with an infected person.
In response, Petland issued a statement noting that any dog or puppy, regardless of origin, can carry the bacteria, and saying that the CDC had not identified any lapse in sanitation at its stores.
The risk to young children
The outbreak of a puppy-born illness is distressing in a nation that is now home to more dogs than children, but it's a reminder of the health hazards presented by family pets even as they improve our mental health.
Campylobacteriosis is but one of the illnesses people can contract from dogs; others include tapeworm, hookworm, roundworm, mange, rabies and a half-dozen other illnesses transmitted by bacteria.
The current outbreak, however, is most often seen when people are exposed to puppies, not older dogs.
The authors of a 2015 study on the bacteria in Swedish dogs wrote, "Presence of a puppy in the household has been identified as risk factor for campylobacteriosis, especially in young children." The study concluded that dogs under the age of 2 are most likely to shed Campylobacter.
Not every puppy carries the bacteria. Studies on its prevalence in dogs has found rates that range from 22 to 100 percent, but it's generally thought to be less than 50 percent.
Soap and gloves
Utah has had outbreaks of campylobacteriosis before. In 2014, at least 45 people became ill after drinking raw milk processed in Weber County. The cause was later traced to cows whose udders had not been properly cleaned, causing trace amounts of feces to get into the milk.
The effects of campylobacteriosis — diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever — are unpleasant, but most people recover without medical treatment. The effects may be worse in children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those who have weakened or compromised immune systems, and in rare cases, hospitalization is necessary. Symptoms usually begin 2 to 5 days after exposure, and the illness can last about a week.
People don't generally give it to each other, although it sometimes can be transmitted through sexual contact, or by changing a child's diaper, the CDC says.4 comments on this story
But a puppy or older dog can carry the bacteria without appearing sick, so it's important for parents to protect themselves and their children by practicing meticulous hygiene every day.
The best way to do this, according to the CDC? Wash your hands every time you pet or play with a puppy, and use disposable gloves when cleaning up after a dog.
As for the dogs: The illness will often resolve on its own in a mature dog, but puppies can get progressively sicker and should be seen by a vet, particularly if their diarrhea contains blood, according to Northwest Hills K-9 Rescue, a Connecticut nonprofit that finds homes for dogs and provides public education.