The city of Toronto, the place where my not-so-fat assets are currently seated, only has one major problem. And it’s not the fact that our current mayor has smoked crack cocaine, acted like a Simpsons character in public, and peed in a parking lot after (allegedly) drinking and driving while being overshadowed by a police helicopter (whew!).
Our real problem is that we suffer from official mysticism about dogs.
We have a municipal bylaw that states that animals are not allowed in ‘food service areas.’ This has been interpreted to mean that your dog can’t accompany you into a restaurant, café, or bar. Not even an outdoor restaurant patio that has sparrows and seagulls sitting on the unoccupied tables. If a dog gets in, the owner of the facility faces a huge fine. The reason for this exclusion is held to be hygienic.
Curiously, if your dog is accredited as a ‘service animal,’ it escapes being a hygienic problem. It is allowed in any restaurant. Since most ‘service animals’ are seeing-eye dogs, the bylaw in effect bans people from bringing any dog that is visible to them into a restaurant. If you can’t see your dog, then it’s OK.
You have to love bureaucracy.
People are usually intimidated by health bureaucracies, and this bylaw is maintained religiously by one of those. There is an official called the Medical Officer of Health who is the designated upholder of the idea that visible dogs are unacceptable sources of contamination in restaurants and pubs. Challenge this person, and you could be subject to a deluge of morally indignant scientific bafflegab. You would soon be put in your place as an ignorant fool trying to sicken the public.
In my case, though, this tactic is not going to work. I have two qualifications that should help to keep me from losing my footing in any confrontation with moral-technical spew.
The lesser of the two qualifications is that I lived for several years in Europe. There, dogs in pubs and restaurants do not pose a hygienic problem. Isn’t that mysterious? In Amsterdam, where I lived, neighbourhood pubs, which often serve meals and are called cafés, universally welcome dogs. Most even have a doggy water-dish available to lubricate the thirsty companion animal. If staff can’t find one, they apologize and deploy the best available plastic container. Restaurants, distinguished from cafés by the presence of tablecloths, follow an interesting custom. Your dog is probably welcome, but you need to ask first. If the restaurant allows dogs, your animal is obliged to stay under the table. Any dog too undisciplined to do that is not allowed entry. This means that, as a Dutch person, you need to specifically train your dog in under-the-table staying so that it can go to restaurants.
I brought my late (that is, no longer existing) yellow Labrador dog over from Toronto to live with me in the ‘Dam, and he was incredibly grateful to be allowed into the café. He was an exquisitely well mannered fellow – for which I’m obliged to take a portion of the credit – and he charmed both staff and customers. As we walked along the street, if he felt thirsty, he’d use his nose to identify a café door, and then he’d sit down in front of it and incline his head to indicate a desire to go in. Sometimes, if we were close to my planned destination, I declined his request and asked him to carry on just a little further. This led to great hilarity amongst passersby. ‘De hond wilt de kroeg in, maar de baas niet,’ one man chuckled lustily – ‘the dog wants to go in the pub, but the ‘boss’ doesn’t!’ It seemed as if my mischievous pet was egging me on towards alcoholism.
Dogs hate to give up their privileges. The looks I got from mine after I moved back to Toronto and had to tie him up outside, even if we were right next to each other on opposite sides of a low patio fence, were heart-rending. He was fully aware he had lost status, big-time.
For his sake, then, I had to ask the tough questions. Explain to me, Dr. Medical Officer, how the same dog can be a health hazard in a Toronto restaurant, but not in an Amsterdam restaurant? Or, for that matter, in a Parisian restaurant. My retired next-door neighbour in Toronto spends up to a quarter of the year sitting in Paris cafés taking compliments on behalf of her fluffy white Havanese mini-dog. Why don’t you treat her, Dr. Medical Officer, like a Canadian Typhoid Mary, and ban her from taking her disease-bag animal to restaurants abroad?
I had discovered an interesting clue as to what was going on while travelling around the Netherlands with my dog. Most Dutch cities and larger towns feature one or more Irish pubs in addition to the conventional Dutch cafés. Irish pubs, I found, universally banned dogs. These pubs were owned by authentic Irish people, or at least, by some identifiable variant of my own native ethnicity – let’s call it ‘Celto-Anglo-Saxo-fussbudget.’ The staff of these pubs didn’t say anything about health hazards when they saw a dog on the premises – they just gave the animal a dirty look and asked that it be taken outside.
This reaction suggested that the dirtiness of ‘dirty dogs’ depended more on the cultural background of the humans involved than on any objective problem.
Fortunately, I could look into that question further because of my second, and greater qualification for assessing the dog problem. I worked for many years as the head of a division in the Canadian equivalent of a State Public Health laboratory – I was the chief fungus expert and also the acting head of the parasitology lab. In reaching those positions, I’d picked up a broad general knowledge of just about everything that’s important with microbes, germs and Public Health. Nothing that I knew about could explain the dog restaurant bylaw. I did, however, have access to all the resources I needed to investigate the matter further.
One of the reasons we can live so easily with dogs is that they tend not to carry human diseases. We can’t catch a cold or a flu from our dogs. Or measles, or polio, or scarlet fever – you name it, dogs don’t have it. Compared to small children, health-wise, they are clean, clean, clean. One rare exception to this is that if a human somehow eats dog faecal matter – or let’s be frank, dog poo – then he or she is at a slight risk of acquiring one of the tapeworms in the genus Echinococcus (the name means ‘spiny round thing’). As some Mexican authors recently said in a report on two local cases, “Humans become infected incidentally through fecal-oral contact, particularly in the course of playful and close contact with an infected dog.” Dogs that have the infection typically acquire it on the farm by eating raw organ meat of sheep, goats or swine infected with another stage in the parasite’s life cycle.
Needless to say, millions of people play with their dogs, and, in developed countries, exquisitely few of them become infected with a tapeworm during the course of frolic. Even if this were to happen, however, it could hardly involve a restaurant. Something about all those tippable tables, breakable drinking glasses, and so on, seems to mute the likelihood of owner-canine wrestling matches in the café.
The U.S. government, as its best-ever use of tax dollars, funds an online database of all medical literature, PubMed. One can see in a few minutes of searching that no tapeworm case involving dogs and restaurants has ever been recorded there.
So I was stumped. One day, at work, I straightened my tie and went down the corridor to ask our august Chief Medical Microbiologist, the late Chandrasekharan Krishnan, what he thought the dog ban was based on. With a patrician twinkle in his eye, as befits a medical specialist in top management, he gave me a two-word answer: “Pasteurella multocida.”
This is an uncommonly seen bacterium with a characteristic ‘mousy’ odour. It is named after its discoverer, Louis Pasteur. The species name, multocida, roughly translates as ‘mass murderer,’ suggesting the bug might cause problems – even though the name was rarely heard in the public health lab.
Looking into Pasteur’s serial killer, I saw that the victims are almost all chicken and geese. The infection that it causes in them is called ‘fowl cholera.’ The bacterium, however, also lives in the mouths of most house cats, doing them no harm. The majority of human cases are local infections around cat bites. Rarely, in such cases, bacteria in the wound can mobilize further into the body and cause infections of the lymph system, the heart valves, or the brain.
A researcher with the engaging name A. Freshwater wrote the following synopsis in an abstract seen in PubMed: “Approximately four to five million animal bite wounds are reported in the USA each year. Domestic companion animals inflict the majority of these wounds. Although canine bites far outnumber feline bites, unlike the dog, the cat’s bite is worse than its bark” (I love that line, particularly when I imagine the cat’s bark); “20-80% of all cat bites will become infected, compared with only 3-18% of dog bite wounds. Pasteurella multocida is the most commonly cultured bacterium from infected cat bite wounds.”
Pasteurella is less commonly associated with dogs than cats, but it can be found in the mouths of around half of the dogs tested.
Serious cases of pasteurellosis, where the Pasteurella is not just confined to a bite, tend to involve newborn babies. Here’s a passage from another scientific abstract, this time by H. Guet-Revillet and co-authors from France. My comments are in parentheses.
“Among all 48 cases (of meningitis in children caused by Pasteurella reported between 1963 and 2013 worldwide), 44 % were newborns. An animal source of the infection, including 39 household dogs and cats, was suspected or identified in 42 of 48 cases (In fact, 14 cases involved patients with cats, 12 involved patients with dogs, and 7 involved patients with both cats and dogs). A traumatic contact between the child and a pet (in other words, a bite or scratch) occurred in 8 % of cases, and a vertical transmission from mother to child during birth in 10.4 % (yes, that’s right – the human mom herself carried the infectious bacterium in one out of every ten cases). Most of the time, the infection resulted from non-traumatic contact between the child and the pet, through licking or sniffing.”
What the authors neglected to say was that none of the cases involved a restaurant. Nor does any known case of Pasteurella infection involve a restaurant. The cases studied in France, where dogs peacefully go out for afternoon coffee with their owners, involved two much more dangerous environments – the family home, and the outdoors. The authors had a clear take-home message for readers: “This rare disease could be prevented by reducing contact between infants and household pets, and by performing simple hygienic measures (in other words, washing hands) before handling babies.” Clearly, every action that could possibly risk transmitting a Pasteurella infection is much less likely to occur in a café than in known places of elevated risk, like the family living room or the back yard.
My search for a microbial cause of the Toronto restaurant dog ban had come up empty. And, in any case, having grown up in Canadian culture, I already had a suspicion as to what the source was. Experience with the Irish pubs in the Netherlands suggested this suspicion was squinting down the right track.
Back in the 1850’s, the growth of English cities and the lack of attention to providing clean drinking water for poor people led to massive cholera outbreaks. Famously, physician John Snow, the ‘father of epidemiology,’ linked the disease to the drinking of sewage-contaminated water. One of the proofs of his genius is that he did this even though Louis Pasteur had not yet published the ‘germ theory of disease.’ (In fact, the germ theory was already around, but it was only known to apply to a fungal disease of silkworms). Without a real understanding of how microbes did their thing, people in the mid-1800s had to make do with their ideas of which things were dirty in nature and which things were clean. Intuitively, ‘dirtiness’ had two dimensions, which, in my reading of the situation, could be called ‘soil’ and ‘chaos.’ These two factors often worked together. If you never washed your clothes, they would become soiled and stinky – that was ‘soil’- but your lack of washing reflected your own mental chaos. You had to buck up, make an effort, and clean yourself. Chaos was the friend of soil, and vice-versa. Together, they caused unhealthiness.
Before real germ hygiene came along, then, the cultures of the British Isles and the worldwide English-speaking diaspora began to solve their public health problems through a roster of ideas that I call ‘Victorian hygiene.’ Dirtiness, in Victorian hygiene, included not just visible filth and bad smells, but also items Victorians intuitively associated with chaos, like clutter, sex, drunkenness and – dogs. Dogs didn’t know enough not to roll in the dirt, and they deposited their excretions with wilful randomness outdoors. Few dogs of the era were neutered, and they rutted in the open just as the Victorians were frantically lacing up their corsets, and campaigning to end teenaged masturbation as a morally fatal disease. Dogs also fought, killed chickens, and generally acted like soldiers on campaign. This was unacceptable. Dogs were dirt and chaos.
In our good moods, then, we Celto-Anglo-Saxo-fussbudgets worldwide adore our dogs, but when we’re getting serious about combating health risks, dogs are the equivalent of seething dunghills. We are not influenced as we look across the ocean and see Dutch people sitting in cafés and scratching their dogs’ ears with one hand while eating their grilled North Sea sole with the other. We don’t care how many elegant women bring their meticulously groomed white lap-beasties into the fancy boites of Paris. No one is going to make us sick by putting the concept of dog – filth – together with the concept of food – must not be filthy.
The problem with Toronto, then, is that it’s still, at heart, a Celto-Anglo-Saxo-fussbudget city. Never mind that it’s the most ethnically diverse city in the world, where pulling together a couple of hundred Burundian Tutsis or Kirghizians or Nicaraguans for a political demonstration is easy. The hundreds of thousands of continental Europeans who live here with us have not influenced us in the fundamentals of life. We can abide a mayor who smokes crack, but there are boundaries that must not be crossed.
My ever-so-civilized new chocolate Labrador dog, tethered to a bike rack and looking at me big-eyed as I write this blog piece over a cup of coffee, is on the other side of Toronto’s most firmly entrenched public boundary.
In here, I’m sitting with my laptop in the 21st century.
Out there, he waits for me patiently in the 19th.