Strep search: Don’t blame your sore throat on the dog

It’s tempting to test the dog when a family can’t shake strep throat, but washing your hands proves to be more effective than treating Rover. It’s tempting to test the dog when a family can’t shake strep throat, but washing your hands proves to be more effective than treating Rover.

It happens at least once a year. Family members taking turns with strep throat, and they bring the dog in to see if he might be the culprit. It’s a completely reasonable concern, although I’m surprised at how often it has been suggested by the family physician or pediatrician. Because the answer is the same every time: No, the dog didn’t give anybody strep throat.

Most of us have probably tangled with strep throat at one point or another, and it’s a notoriously unpleasant experience. Lymph nodes under the jaw become swollen and sore. Horrible pustules line the back of the throat, bringing pain and frustration with them. It quickly responds to a course of antibiotics, but this still requires an inconvenient trip to the doctor and that gag-inducing test where they swab the back of your throat. This test is specifically looking for group A streptococcus—the bacteria that cause all this misery.

The thing about this infection is that it really likes people. We are its victim, but also its source. Many people harboring it have no symptoms at all. There is no vaccine, and the only prevention is good hygiene and a dash of hope. And unlike so many other diseases, recent infection with strep doesn’t prevent you from getting it again, which means that groups of people can continue passing it around indefinitely.

So what about the dog? The simple fact is that there are no clearly documented cases of dogs giving people strep throat. Although the offending bacteria can (rarely) be cultured from dogs, all evidence suggests that they only carry the bacteria temporarily after picking it up from a person. It doesn’t want to live in dogs, and it isn’t there long enough to multiply and become contagious.

You’ve probably noticed that there’s some wiggle room here. If dogs can carry the bacteria even briefly, isn’t it possible—however unlikely—that they might hand it off to a person? Sure. Biology is nothing if not unpredictable. But in these hypothetical cases, the dog would be serving a role no different than a contaminated pillow or a used glass. Testing the dog makes no more sense than testing every other object in the house for the presence of group A strep.

There is a lot of pressure on veterinarians to prescribe antibiotics to dogs when a family is visited by a stubborn round of strep throat. At a glance, what harm can it do? Even if it just makes everybody feel better, isn’t that worth it? Unfortunately, no it isn’t. Among other man-made catastrophes, antibiotic resistance is a threat to every single one of us. Tossing antibiotics at the dog without justification is one more incremental contribution to a global problem.

Strep throat can be frustrating, especially when a family can’t seem to shake it. But there is no need to conjecture about some mysterious culprit when we already know exactly where it’s coming from. It comes from us. Let’s leave the dog out of this.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003, and has lived in Charlottesville since.