The Latest on COVID-19 and Dogs
What is the difference between COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2?
COVID-19 is the name of the disease and SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes the disease. Viruses, and their respective diseases, often have different names. For example, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.
Viruses are named by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). The names are based on the genetic structure of the virus to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines.
Diseases are named by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is responsible for developing preparedness and response plans for human disease. The diseases are named to enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity and treatment.
ICTV announced “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2) as the name of the new virus on February 11, 2020. This name was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003. While related, the two viruses are different.
On the same day in February, WHO also proclaimed “COVID-19” as the name of this new disease, which stands for “coronavirus disease 2019.” The two organizations work together in the naming process.
Should my dog be tested for SARS-CoV-2?
Despite active research, there remain many unanswered questions about the true risk of SARS-CoV-2 in pets, and whether pets can spread the illness to other pets or humans. While testing for SARS-CoV-2 has become widely available in the United States for humans, veterinarians are wondering if they should be testing their patients.
Millions of people worldwide have been diagnosed with the virus, but so far there have only been a few reports of positive test results in pets. Case reports and experimental studies have suggested that dogs, cats and ferrets can test positive for SARS-CoV-2, but whether they actually develop the disease is not clear.
Thousands of samples from dogs, cats and horses from all over the world have been tested by IDEXX and Antech laboratories. Both of these labs are familiar to veterinarians and dog owners. The only pet cases that tested positive were two cats from New York State. It is unknown if these two cats had exposure to humans infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The testing of pets belonging to people with the coronavirus has presented several difficult logistical challenges. Ideally, the pets should be tested within one to two weeks after a human-positive case is confirmed. Since COVID-19-positive people are advised to quarantine themselves at home, testing of the pets would require technicians to enter the home to collect samples from the pet, or the potentially exposed pets must be taken to a veterinarian for testing.
There is also the question of whether pet fur acts as a fomite, which is a substance capable of absorbing and transmitting a disease-causing agent such as a virus. It appears that this type of transmission is unlikely. The virus only survives on a pet’s coat for a few hours, but theoretically there could be a risk if an infected person coughs on his or her dog and the dog is handled by someone else a few minutes later. It is one of the reason veterinarians and their staff are still taking extra precautions.
What are the signs of COVID-19 in dogs?
The signs of COVID-19 in dogs include coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, fever, vomiting, diarrhea and lack of appetite. These symptoms are a greater concern if they appear within seven to 14 days following exposure to a COVID-19-positive person. Most likely, however, these symptoms are the result of other conditions, such as infectious tracheobronchitis (kennel cough) or getting into the garbage. It is important not to jump to any conclusions.
If you think your dog is sick, you should contact your veterinarian. In order to minimize the risk of exposure, the regulations regarding telemedicine have been expanded. You may be able to set up an examination for your dog via Skype, Facetime or Zoom. Even texting or emailing photos and videos of your dog along with a phone consultation can help you and your veterinarian determine whether or not your dog requires treatment.
Can I bring my dog to the veterinarian for examination?
Veterinarians are being advised to continue to practice social distancing from clients. If the dog requires examination and no one in the household has symptoms or has been diagnosed with COVID-19, car-side consultations or curbside drop-offs are still recommended. Exceptions can be made for euthanasia, or if the dog is exceptionally difficult to handle without the owner present. The doctors and staff should wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as a mask and gloves.
Dogs presented for treatment that live in a known or suspected COVID-19-positive household should be brought in by someone who does not reside in that household. A higher level of PPE should be worn by the veterinary staff who handle the dog, including an N-95 mask, face shield, gloves and a full gown. As an additional precaution, after the pet is taken from the owner, the dog should be wiped down with a disinfectant wipe, such as a hydrogen-peroxide wipe. Exam rooms and surfaces should be disinfected properly when the dog is discharged. In cases where hospitalization is required, these dogs should be placed in an isolation ward.
How would my dog be tested?
The test for SARS-CoV-2 is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. The PCR is a fast and inexpensive laboratory technique used to “amplify,” or copy, small segments of DNA. It is sometimes called “molecular photocopying.” Significant amounts of a sample of DNA are necessary for molecular and genetic analysis. PCR amplification makes studies of isolated pieces of DNA possible. This enables the detection of the presence of virus particles. Nasal, throat and rectal swabs can be submitted for PCR testing.
Routine testing of dogs with no symptoms of illness is not recommended at this time, unless the testing is being done as part of a research project. If a dog has signs of illness caused by COVID-19 and needs to be tested, the testing process must be done in coordination with public-health officials following USDA-specified criteria.
Testing protocols include wearing appropriate PPE and disinfecting carriers and surfaces. Keep in mind that the symptoms of COVID-19 are also the symptoms of many other infectious diseases. Since it is still unknown whether dogs can actually contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus or transmit it to humans, other diagnostic rule-outs such as canine parvovirus, influenza, pancreatitis and infectious tracheobronchitis should be considered.
Is it true that dogs can be trained to detect COVID-19 in people?
Yes, the so-called “bio-detector” dogs are being trained to sniff out people with COVID-19. The dogs can apparently tell the difference between samples collected from infected people and people who do not have the disease. The coronavirus does not have a smell, but it appears that infected peoples’ sweat has a different odor.
A body that contracts the SARS-CoV-2 virus generates volatile organic compounds. A gauze left for about 15 minutes in the underarm of a person in the early stages of infection is the sample used to train the dogs. The selected dogs have been trained to detect drugs and explosives. With this training, they are simply learning to identify a new aroma.
The training takes between two weeks to two months. Instead of “pawing” the people as they do when sniffing for drugs, the dogs are taught to sit beside the individuals they have determined to be likely carriers of the coronavirus. A dog can sniff 250 people in an hour. The bio-detector dogs are hoped to facilitate the process of reopening stadiums, malls, schools and restaurants.