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How puppy love brought a drug-resistant, life-threatening infection into an Ohio home

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Posted at 8:52 AM, Jul 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-26 12:53:47-04

OXFORD, Ohio — Puppy love almost killed Michael McVey.

He and his wife, Cathy, laugh about it now, but they also have a nickname for the little white puppy he adopted in 2017: Typhoid Mabel, the $53,000 dog.

Cathy had advised against getting a new pet, but Michael had his heart set on Mabel. She arrived in their home with a microscopic passenger that made the McVeys part of a multistate outbreak.

"I would say there were several times he was in serious danger of dying," Cathy McVey said.

Mabel had Campylobacter jejuni, a bacteria that can pass from dogs to humans. Although it didn't make Mabel very sick, Michael McVey quickly developed an infection so severe it put him in the hospital for 30 days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most cases of campylobacteriosis are mild and resolve on their own after a few days of fever and intestinal discomfort. Michael McVey's wasn't and didn't.

That's because the strain of Campylobacter jejuni Mabel carried was drug-resistant. McVey was treated with 36 antibiotics, none of which worked before doctors identified three that would.

"We kept contacting the CDC," said Mercy Health physician Dr. Dheeraj Goyal, who identified McVey's condition as campylobacteriosis and played detective to determine the best treatment.

The CDC counts McVey as one of 169 people infected with the variant Campbylobacter strain as a result of contact with a puppy since 2016. The cases have been concentrated in two multistate outbreaks: One beginning in 2016, of which McVey was a part and another beginning in 2019.

Goyal has since published a study summarizing what he learned from McVey's case and recommending safety measures that can prevent dog-transmitted cases of campylobacteriosis.

"Especially when an animal is new to your house, make sure you're washing your hands," he said.

And although puppy kisses are tempting, they can transmit germs easily. Close handling of new puppies, especially those from pet stores, should be careful and always accompanied by hand-washing.

Mabel is now an adult, and McVey has fully recovered. But Cathy McVey now has a trump card in any marital disagreements.

"She goes, 'You remember that little white dog?'" Michael McVey joked. "And I go, 'Oh, no — printed furniture is wonderful in the living room, yes.'"

This story was originally published by Kristyn Hartman on Scripps station WCPO in Cincinnati.