Map tracks veterinary infectious disease cases in real time

Veterinarians encouraged to report illness in dogs, cats, horses

Published: April 18, 2014
By Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM

VIN News Service screenshot
The new online global Worms & Germs Map aims to get ahead of outbreaks of veterinary infectious diseases by presenting cases of illness as they occur.

By the time an outbreak of infectious illness in domestic animals is suspected and surveillance gets underway, the pathogen often is spreading ahead of the experts.

A new interactive online map created by two veterinarians could change that.  

The Worms & Germs Map, created by Drs. J. Scott Weese and Maureen Anderson, is an Internet-based program designed to track the spread of infectious diseases in dogs, cats and horses, as the diseases unfold.

Launched last month, the site is funded through Weese’s Canada Research Chair in zoonotic diseases. Weese is a professor in the pathobiology department at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Anderson works at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

The project aims to collect and synthesize information that in isolation may not be recognized as important, but in aggregate may give early clues of a brewing problem.

Weese explained that an outbreak of a new disease or one not previously recognized in a region may first present as a series of oddball clinical cases. “Often, a vet will see a cluster of cases with strange findings. Most of the time, that information goes nowhere,” he said.

“However, with centralized data reported, it’s possible to detect early trends or outbreaks if a few different vets from the same area identify the same problem, even if they don’t communicate with each other,” he continued. “They can input those into the map, and it may provide the impetus for active surveillance.”

In addition to helping to detect disease outbreaks early, Weese said, “We want to increase the literacy of infectious disease among veterinarians and the general public.”

Dr. Cynda Crawford, an expert in immunology and infectious disease and a clinical assistant professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida, said the map helps to fill a void in veterinary medicine, which lacks a counterpart to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In contrast to our human health colleagues, veterinary medicine has not had a formal and accessible method for tracking companion animal infectious diseases in North America,” Crawford said in an interview by email. “The interactive online map for reporting diseases in horses, dogs, and cats developed by Drs. Weese and Anderson is a great step forward in filling this knowledge gap.”

She added, “I am very excited about this map and check it frequently to see what’s happening.”

Some level of disease monitoring in household pets and horses does exist. Crawford, for example, became the go-to person for reports on canine influenza cases after she discovered the virus that causes dog flu in 2004. But that’s informal monitoring of one disease in one species. Weese noted that existing disease-tracking resources tend to be limited by focus on a narrow range of diseases and by geography. They also tend not to differentiate between infection and seropositivity — that is, exposure to a pathogen without illness — or to collect “front-line” data from veterinarians in clinical practice, he said.

Weese estimated the cost of getting the Worms & Germs map running to be $20,000. He handled overall planning and content, and enlisted a website company run by a veterinarian to develop the site.

Although most reports on the map so far are from North America and western Europe, the resource is designed to track diseases worldwide. The map draws from first-person reports, existing surveillance networks and credible news reports, Weese said.

Veterinarians and veterinary technicians may register on the site for authorization to upload confirmed or suspected cases of disease. To ensure that the clinical and test data is as accurate as possible, only veterinarians and veterinary technicians will be given access to enter cases directly into the map.

Adding a case entails providing data including clinical signs, test results and location, identified by postal or ZIP code. To protect the privacy of the people and patients involved and yet impart regional information, the map localizes cases to only the first 3 digits of the ZIP or postal code.

Weese noted that the website is not intended to track exposure to disease without accompanying illness. That’s why case reports should include clinical information. “We don’t really want to track healthy, seropositive animals; we’re tracking disease,” he said.

Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites tend to migrate along with their human, domestic animal and wildlife hosts. So over the course of time, a disease that once seemed confined to a small region may spread. Weese pointed to Lyme disease as a classic example of a disease for which regional prevalence shifts. He is hopeful the map will reveal such disease migrations as they occur.

The map’s creators also hope the tool will be useful not only in providing a big picture of disease prevalence and spread, but in helping individual animal owners and clinicians with day-to-day decisions.

For example, Weese said, if a dog owner is considering whether to vaccinate his dog against leptospirosis, the veterinarian and owner could assess the local risk by pulling up the map to view reported cases of the bacterial disease in their region.

The tool also could be used to help a veterinary client gauge disease risks for animals bound for travel. “Vets may be well-versed in their area, but they may not know and may need to consider risks when pets travel,” Weese said. “Knowing what diseases an animal may be exposed to while traveling helps make better preventive-medicine decisions before travel. Also, knowing what diseases occur in an area an animal has visited can help when a vet is confronted with an animal that gets sick when it returns."

Weese calls the map an evolving resource that may expand in the future to include livestock or wildlife species.

Ultimately, he said, the map is a collaborative effort: “We’re trying to emphasize that the more people put in, the more they can get out of it. The more data people put in, the more useful it is for the area.”

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