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Veterinary Talk by Dr. Jim Humphries

Can the Ebola virus affect pets?

There is a theoretical risk that dogs could pass the Ebola virus to humans through urine, feces or saliva, but ó and this is the important part ó there is no evidence of this ever happening. Of course, experts in virology recommend caution because there is a huge lack of scientific and controlled data.Viruses are typically very species-specific organisms, meaning they have a predilection for one type of animal or human over another. For example, your horse may have equine influenza but would not transmit that to you, just as when you get the flu you do not transmit it to your dogs, cats or horses.However, some types of viruses are not so discriminating. Rabies is a perfect example. It can affect any warm-blooded animal. There is a parallel between the rabies virus and the Ebola virus; both seem to have what is known as ìdead-end hosts.î In other words, cattle, horses and most notably rodents and squirrels are considered dead-end hosts for rabies, meaning they can get the disease but rarely if ever transmit the disease to humans.The decision to euthanize the dog in Spain was made out of hysteria, as government officials there had no understanding of the science behind the virus. The human cases of the Ebola virus who have obtained the infection in the United States will, at this point, not have their pets euthanized. Cooler and smarter heads prevail because of the understanding of how this virus works in dogs and cats.Euthanizing the dog in Spain has robbed science of a rare opportunity to study this virus in dogs. Had this not been done, the dog could have provided valuable answers to some of the worldís most important questions at this point: Can a dog be sick with Ebola, can it excrete the virus, and can it contaminate humans?Just about everything we know about Ebola virus disease in dogs comes from a large outbreak in Gabon, Africa, in 2001 and 2002; where well over 400 dogs had been seriously exposed to the Ebola virus; and many developed antibodies. This is a sign that they clearly had contracted the disease. However, none of the dogs showed any symptoms; and, as far as we know, no transmissions of the Ebola virus were caused by these dogs.Consequently, the belief is they can get the disease but appear to be a dead-end host. Because no actual controlled scientific studies have been done on this subject, we cannot say anything at this point for sure. Only from this real world case that did involve a large number of dogs can we make the assumption they do not transmit the disease. As for cats, nothing is known. However, cats are quite different in their susceptibility to a variety of viruses in the microbial world.The study was unable to say whether the dogs had picked up the virus from a natural source, such as bats, monkeys, apes ó or from humans themselves. It was not designed to answer the bigger question: Can dogs infect humans? If those dogs are carrying the virus, they are definitely a potential source of the virus. They have to be considered a risk to anyone who handles the dogs or comes into close contact with secretions or fecal material.Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organization for Animal Health, said The World Health Organizationís official position is that there is no scientific evidence that domestic animals play an active role in the transmission of this disease to humans.In the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there are “no reports of pets becoming sick” or “playing a role in transmission of Ebola to humans.îRemember, the Ebola virus is a virus; consequently, antibiotics will have no effect in treating this disease or any other viral disease. The overuse of antibiotics is a major problem leading to antibiotic resistance. I hope to cover that subject in a future column.Dr. Jim Humphries is a mobile veterinarian in Falcon. He also serves as a visiting Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes.

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