Once again, the hunt is on, with packs of baying hounds tracking foxes through Maryland's rolling fields and leafy woods.
The English sport of fox hunting has been a tradition at hunt clubs in Maryland since the 1700s. But this year the season has opened amid concern created by a parasite one-third the size of a mosquito that can prove fatal to the venerable foxhound.
The threat posed by the tiny bug has ignited a debate in Maryland and across the country. One animal protection group is calling for a moratorium on fox hunts until the risks of the parasite and the infection it causes - leishmaniasis - can be assessed.
So far, few of the dogs tested around the country have been found to have the disease. Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, the sport's national governing body, put the number at less than 1 percent.
"Very, very few hounds have come up positive," he said. "The million-dollar question is why they have it."
The problem arose last spring, when foxhounds in upstate New York started dying from the rare infection. Members of the fox-hunting community swung into action.
They canceled hound shows and poured thousands of dollars into testing more than 9,000 dogs in the United States and Canada to find out if leishmaniasis had spread.
Hunt clubs in Maryland joined the pack, taking blood samples from their hounds.
"The initial reaction was alarm," said Dr. Ann Schneider, who runs the Eastern Veterinary Blood Bank in Annapolis. "At the time, we didn't know the extent of the infection."
So far, none of the tests on approximately 800 foxhounds - a characteristically friendly, obedient animal that is bred to hunt - in Maryland has been positive.
"This disease has been blown out of proportion," said John W. "Duck" Martin, a master of the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club, which was founded in 1892. "It's a nonissue."
But some dogs in the state have shown blood readings that are considered suspect, said Schneider, who declined to say where their kennels are located. The hounds with high titers, or indicators, are being kept separate from other dogs while researchers investigate leishmaniasis (pronounced leash-men-EYE-a-sis), which is typically found in Mediterranean countries and South America.
So far, dozens of hounds in about 40 kennels in 20 states and Canada have blood titers in a range indicating they could have the infection.
No one is sure how the 21 dogs that died in Millbrook, N.Y., contracted the disease, which is usually spread by the bite of a tiny sand fly. The insect is not common in Millbrook, a village in the eastern Hudson Valley about 85 miles north of New York City.
Because the animals lived together in kennels, traveled for dog shows and moved in packs as they tracked foxes, there is speculation that the hounds could have spread the disease among themselves through body fluids.
"We have a long way to go to know what we need to know," said Dr. Peter M. Schantz of the Division of Parasitic Diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It is not restricted to Dutchess County, New York."
The CDC is collaborating with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and other agencies to investigate leishmaniasis, which was named after Sir W.B. Leishman, a Scottish bacteriologist.
Symptoms include skin lesions, bleeding, hair loss, swollen limbs and joints, and kidney failure.
Schantz said there is no evidence that leishmaniasis, which was first found in a U.S. foxhound in 1980, has spread to other dogs or pets. But he added, "The Millbrook incident has forced things to a head. ... Now there is awareness; veterinarians will look for it."
The disease has been found in humans in other countries, but it's rarely contracted in the United States, according to a CDC report. Left untreated, the disease can also be fatal in humans.
Schneider, who has worked with foxhounds for years at her blood bank, said she is not worried about contracting the infection. She and her staff were tested for leishmaniasis, but results were negative.
"We have a tremendous interaction [with the hounds]. The foxhounds lick my face," she said. "If we don't have it, it can't be easy to transmit."
Liz McKnight, a master with the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club in Harford County, does not consider it a problem. "It's a subtropical disease," she said. "I'm more worried about Lyme disease."
The Fund for Animals, a national animal protection agency, has been paying close attention to the leishmaniasis outbreak.
"We believe fox hunters significantly downplay the risk the disease could pose to people, pets and other wildlife," said the group's executive vice president, Michael Markarian. "While there are still questions and there is a slim threat this disease could be transmitted by biting or saliva, we should take every precaution. Fox hunters should not be allowed to go ahead with their recreation."
Foxhound breeders are also concerned. John D. Wickline, who breeds English foxhounds for pets and showing in Prince George's County, said leishmaniasis is "something all dog owners need to be worried about."
Besides English foxhounds, there are also American and crossbred foxhounds. The hounds are known for their friendliness, speed, drive and determination, said Andrew Barclay, a huntsman, or dog trainer, at Green Spring Club.
On a crisp afternoon at the 160-acre farm in northern Baltimore County where the Green Spring hounds live, a group of about 15 dogs followed Barclay.
At Green Spring, about 100 dogs will participate in the hunts held three or four times a week from now until March, when the hounds breed.
The hounds relish the hunt, Barclay said. "It's what they love to do."
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