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Online Discussion: Tracking new emerging diseases and the next pandemic; Coronavirus Pandemic Discussion Forum.

COVID-19: What We Don’t Know

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Tabitha111 View Drop Down
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    Posted: March 21 2020 at 6:23am

(But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something)

By Scott Weese on

Long post alert….

I’ve spent more time than I can count on calls about COVID-19. 

Lots of questions about animal aspects come up and there are few good answers. Too often, there’s a desire to come with definitive statements, despite the lack of evidence. That’s been done by some groups, and then they’ve had to walk those back (e.g. “there’s no evidence pets can be infected’ moving to “there’s no evidence that pets can infect people’).

I’ve ranted about the ‘absence of evidence’ vs ‘evidence of absence’ concept here a bit (and a lot more on calls). I realize the desire to re-assure. We don’t want people freaking out and we want to emphasize that the risk posed by pets is minimal, if there even is a risk

However, we have to be honest about what we know and what we don’t know. I try to be clear about that because I want my opinion to be understood and for people to have confidence in what I say. I realize what I say might change. I just want to make sure that when I say something definitively, that there’s little chance I’ll have to walk it back. We need to accept uncertainty…easier said than done, but it’s a fact. We can’t let uncertainty scare us or stop us from acting. If we wait for definitive information, we’re bound to miss opportunities.


OK….enough ranting (or whining). Let’s go over some of our areas of uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. We still have to act. It just means we have to make our best informed guess (based on good knowledge of principles of disease control) and realize that things might change.


Can animals be infected?

I think we can say ‘yes’ for dogs. I’d say ‘probably’ for cats. Few cats have been tested but since cats are thought to be better hosts and since dogs can be infected, infection of cats is likely.


Can infected animals infect people?

That’s the big question. We don’t know.

 The risk is probably low, but we can’t say it’s zero. If an animal is infected, it might have such a low level infection that it doesn’t pose a risk for transmission.

 An example is human flu in dogs. We can pass human flu to dogs…it’s rare but it happens. However, we assume that they are ‘dead end hosts’; they are infected but since it’s not their flu virus, they don’t produce enough to infect others. Hopefully, that’s the case with this virus. I’m not too concerned about dogs. I still have concerns about cats, based on what we know about SARS.


What should we do with dogs/cats from households with infected people?

Keep them in the house. If we keep them away from people and animals, we don’t need to worry about whether they are infectious.

If we have to move them, such as to take them to a vet if they are sick, we run into a lot of questions. Those are focused on two issues. One is whether they can be truly infected (see above). The other is whether their haircoat can be contaminated. See below.

Can the pet’s haircoat be contaminated and then infect people?

It’s a reasonable concern. I wrote about environment survival of this virus the other day. However, we don’t know how long it might survive on a haircoat.

 Presumably, it could survive for a few hours, maybe a bit more. So, if an animal comes into a clinic or shelter directly from a household with an infected person, it’s prudent to assume there’s some virus on the haircoat.


What should be done about a potentially contaminated haircoat?

That’s the question I get countless times a day. I wish I had a great answer.

Since we have a reasonable concern, we should take precautions (realizing we have limited amounts of personal protective equipment). On some calls, there have been suggestions to just wash hands….I’m not comfortable with that since I think there’s a potential risk and, in shelters in particular, people with limited infection control training are the first line handlers in some situations and limited precautions with limited training isn’t a good combination.

At the moment, I recommend a gown, gloves, mask and eye protection.

 I think we can probably get by without the mask and eye protection if there’s limited contact….just taking an animal and moving it to a cage, for example….if we pay attention to what we do. A mask and eye protection help prevent hand-mouth/eye contact as much as anything else. Decreasing the amount of protective equipment is reasonable in some situations but it’s dependent on good understanding of what needs to be done and good compliance. The less experience and training, the less I’m comfortable decreasing the level of precautions

Ideally, an animal from a high risk house is quickly and safely transferred to a cage and left alone as much as possible for a few days, at which point there’s pretty much no risk of viable virus remaining on the haircoat. We can’t always do that, though, especially with sick animals in vet clinics.


What about bathing or something else to kill the virus on the haircoat?

Bathing, topical application of chlorhexidine mousse, topical chlorhexidine (or other biocide) rinses or wiping with a disinfectant wipe would probably help. 

Those aren’t applicable to all situations. For example, I’m not going to bathe a dog with an unstable pelvic fracture. However, some form of a topical treatment can probably be applied. It’s easy, cheap, safe and might help. If nothing else, a quick wipe of common human hand contact surfaces with a disinfectant (e.g. accelerated hydrogen peroxide) wipe would be reasonable.


What about pets from other households?

Relax!! The odds of a pet from a household without known or reasonable suspicion of COVID-19 infection being infected are exceedingly low. Relax, don’t waste precious protective equipment and wash your hands. Business as usual.


What should shelters do if someone wants to surrender a dog/cat because of COVID fears?

Step 1 is to talk to them about why. If people are freaked out and afraid, we might be able to address that. The risk from someone’s own pet is limited.

 If my dog Merlin has this virus, he got in from me or someone else in my family. So, I’m either already infected or am more likely to get it from my biohazardous wife or kids. 

If we can’t talk them into keeping the pet, then shelters need to think about whether they can handle the animal safely or whether it’s better off going somewhere else for a quarantine period. 

Ideally, we work hard to keep these animals out of shelters. If we can’t, individual shelters need to have a plan. As a healthy (presumably) animal, it’s easier to say ‘chuck the animal in a cage and keep it there until a few days have passed’, at which point the haircoat contamination risk has presumably passed. This doesn’t cover it all if the animal is truly infected, another reason we really need to test more exposed animals to see what the risk is.


A test is available and thousands of animals have been negative. So, there’s no concern, right?

This is an issue of bad messaging. It’s great to have a test. However, the report from one of those labs that says thousands of animals have been tested and all have been negative isn’t good information. 

Testing animals that have not been exposed to people with COVID-19 tells us nothing about the risk of human-pet contamination. It tells us that the test doesn’t cross react with normal pet coronaviruses, which is great. But it tells us nothing about the risk of interspecies transmission. We need to get into households with infected people and test those animals, something that has been very difficult.


This is just a subset of the important questions. I’ll pause because Maureen will already say “it’s way too long?” (She’s probably right). More questions, and hopefully some answers, in future posts.

'When you feel as though you can't do something, the simple antidote is action: Begin doing it. Start the process, even if it's just a simple step, and don't stop at the beginning.'
Marcus B
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote FluMom Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: March 21 2020 at 10:19am

WOW, I have a dog but I also have a big fenced backyard.  If people walk their dogs then keep them away from other dogs poop which could be infected and do not put them in doggie day care.  I they are only with you they are just fine.  If you bring the virus to them then you are both sick stay at home!!!  This is not brain surgery!

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Technophobe Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: March 22 2020 at 6:34am

Manba, This is not a site for free advertising. Desist or be removed.

Absence of proof is not proof of absence. & Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.
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