Ebola Virus Disease and Our Pets

Central Toronto Veterinary Referral Clinic is keeping a close eye on the ebola virus and how it may affect our Toronto pets and veterinarian clinics in Toronto. What will be the implications for our pets? Who will be making potentially life and death decisions for them?


A few weeks ago, in a questionably thought out and reactive response, Spanish authorities euthanized Excalibur, the much-loved dog that lived with Teresa Romero Ramos, a Spanish nurse who was infected with Ebola virus. Ms. Ramos had become infected after assisting two Spanish missionaries who were infected while working in Sierra Leone, Africa. Ms. Ramos was lucky to survive Ebola, but sadly Excalibur paid the price of her infection with his life.


More recently, Nina Pham, an American nurse, was exposed to Ebola virus while working in Dallas, Texas.  Her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Bentley, was put into quarantine, cared for by veterinarians and eventually reunited with his owner (who also survived). Bentley tested negative for Ebola virus on three separate occasions.


Thankfully, today’s Globe and Mail has less Western “Ebola” hysteria than earlier this fall, however, Ebola remains part of our world reality. Given today’s freedom of global travel, the sometimes painfully slow response of governments, and the propensity for humans to err, more human Ebola cases will probably be identified in North America, including Ontario. Trying to avoid hyperbole, but it is most likely “only a matter of time” before it becomes a local event.  What will be the implications for our pets? Who will be making potentially life and death decisions for them?


A bit of background


Human Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) was first described in 1976, in Africa. The virus appears to be maintained in nature in the African fruit bat population (the home range of these bats does NOT include North America).  Infected bats do not develop signs of disease. Humans become infected through contact with bats or animals that has been infected by bats. EVD is a severe contagious disease affecting humans and non-human primates such as chimpanzees and monkeys. Ebola virus can be transmitted between humans through direct contact with tissues, body fluids or secretions from a SYMPTOMATIC person. Air borne infection has not been documented in humans to date, but has not been conclusively ruled out. Clinical signs are extremely serious, with an average of 50% of infected persons dying from the disease.


To date, there have been no reports of dogs or cats becoming sick with Ebola virus, even in outbreak areas.


Other than bats, humans and non-human primates, other mammals (including an African species of antelope and possibly pigs) can also be naturally infected. What about dogs? Cats? Currently, there is only one scientific study that investigated this concern. In that study, published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2005, African and French researchers observed that during an outbreak in Gabon in 2001 and 2002, some dogs fed on the carcasses of infected animals. The data shows about 25% of dogs studied developed ANTIBODIES to Ebola virus, but sensitive methods have never identified the VIRUS in dogs. Dogs in EVD outbreak regions do NOT develop clinical signs of infection. But can they be carriers? We don’t know for sure.


What does the presence of anti-Ebola virus antibodies mean?


This suggests that dogs exposed to high quantities of virus can be infected, but the infection is likely transient and does not lead to virus being produced. Some would argue that dogs must be infected and thus are potentially able to transmit the virus. However, this is not necessarily so, as the immune system does have mechanisms of making antibodies in cases of transient exposure only. There is no evidence that domestic species, including dogs, can or ever have, transmitted Ebola virus to humans or other animals.


Can dogs or cats carry Ebola virus on their bodies?


It is not known whether an animal’s body, feet, or fur can act as a carrier to transmit Ebola virus to people or other animals. The virus dies quickly when outside of the body. In the current West African epidemic and in previous Ebola outbreaks, exposure to dogs was not a risk factor for human infections.


Interim Guidelines for dogs and cats exposed to Ebola virus have been developed


On November 10, 2014 the American Veterinary Medical Association Ebola Companion Animal Response Group released the documents “Interim Guidance for Public Health Officials on Pets of Ebola Virus Disease Contacts and Interim Guidance for Dog or Cat Quarantine after Exposure to a Human with Confirmed Ebola Virus Disease”. These documents were developed by a group of experts representing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of Homeland Security, various state agencies, and others. One of the experts was Dr. Scott Weese, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, so these guidelines should be applicable to us here in Toronto  as well.


The Guidelines advise that the most prudent course of action is to keep pets away from people who have been exposed to, or are infected with Ebola virus. It further

recommends that public health officials, in collaboration with a veterinarian, evaluate the pet’s risk of exposure to the virus (close contact or exposure to blood or body fluids of an Ebola patient). Based on this evaluation as well as the specific situation, local and provincial human and animal health officials will determine how the pet should be handled and what measures of quarantine and testing are required for Fido. Euthanasia of an exposed pet is NOT a recommendation.


What to expect in the future


Prudent and careful isolation procedures of exposed pets will be enforced, which could be logistically difficult and expensive. Reasonable guidelines for handling service dogs need to be developed. There is no information for cats, but they will be regarded as dogs. Other mammalian pets, such as ferrets, rats and mice, etc. have not been addressed, but would likewise be expected to present minimal risk. Birds, reptiles, fish, and other non-mammalian pets are not considered exposure risks.


Effective and safe vaccines will certainly be one of the major approaches to controlling this disease in humans. There is no evidence that Ebola virus vaccines will be required for our pets. Testing for Ebola virus in pets is also not indicated.


Hopefully we never see Ebola here in Toronto, but staying informed and being an advocate just may save your pets life if it ever does…


Stephen Kruth, DVM, DACVIM



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