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Pet Docs: Keep pets safe from COVID-19 by following CDC guidelines

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Q: I breed, raise and train retrievers. Every year I bring some of my dogs to the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) and I love seeing the people interacting with my dogs. I know the people love it too. My worry is this: I have read that the only two dogs to have contracted COVID-19 in the United States have died. Should I not bring my dogs to the event in 2021, assuming the event is not canceled, or would should I keep them away from the crowds?

A: The first dog in the United States to be confirmed positive with COVID-19 was a German shepherd named Buddy. The 7-year-old first showed symptoms in mid-April with having difficulty breathing. Six weeks later, he was confirmed COVID-19 positive, and two weeks after that, he died on July 11.

Based upon Buddy’s medical records, it is likely that he also was suffering from a type of cancer that is often fatal in dogs, known as lymphoma. His medical records suggest that the symptoms he was exhibiting may have been due in large part, if not entirely, to the lymphoma rather than the COVID-19.

The second case, an 8-year-old Newfoundland, was the first to test positive for COVID-19 in North Carolina. This dog was brought to the teaching hospital at North Carolina State University in respiratory distress.

The owners informed the staff that a family member had previously tested positive for COVID-19 but had subsequently tested negative. We presume this person was negative at the time the dog fell ill. The dog was then confirmed positive for the disease.

An autopsy was performed to determine the cause of death, but as of this writing, I have not found the results and am waiting on a call with this information.

Regardless of the autopsy findings, we do know a few key facts. Approximately 8 million humans have been confirmed with coronavirus in the United States. Given that there are pets in 68 percent of U.S. households, it is safe to say that millions of pets have been exposed. Yet the number of pets who have tested positive for having the virus, which does not necessarily mean they are sick with it, is around 25. Of these 25, we have two deaths that coincide with infection, yet are not yet causally linked.

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In other words, we don’t know for sure that any have actually died of COVID-19.

If one of them died of the disease and we assume that 5 million coronavirus-positive people own pets, that puts the odds of a fatal transmission at about 10 times less likely than an individual's odds of being struck by lightning.

To date, we assume that dogs and cats that test positive for the virus have contracted it from prolonged close contact with their owners who are positive. The risk of this type of transmission resulting in serious or fatal  illness to a pet is exceedingly low to nonexistent. Based upon these odds, and the fact that any contact at SEWE will likely be transient in nature, I would assess the risk to your dogs as very low.

However, there is the possibility that multiple brief contacts could amount to the equivalent of a single prolonged contact. Since this disease is still relatively new, and our understanding of its behavior and transmission is still evolving, I would have to recommend that you err on the side of caution, particularly with immature dogs, or dogs that may have compromising health conditions.

Due to the sheer volume of people attending SEWE, I would limit or exclude direct contact with the public. If you choose to allow contact, at least set up a hand-sanitizing station as well as require masks be worn when in contact with your dogs and keep the exposures brief.

While we know that dogs seem less susceptible to contracting a serious illness with COVID-19, we know they can contract it. The safest approach is to apply the same social distancing practices to your pets that the CDC recommends for people.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.

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