I haven’t written much here about the 2019 novel coronavirus from China lately. In part, that’s because I’ve spent a lot of my time writing or reviewing documents for various groups on the topic. A common challenge I face with zoonotic diseases is the message. On one hand (or for some groups), I’m trying to raise awareness, to makes sure animal aspects are properly addressed. On the other, I’m trying to make sure people don’t go over the top and become paranoid of animals of one species or another. It can be a battle sometimes, because the line between awareness and paranoia is pretty short.

Another issue is lack of resources, expertise, confidence or willingness to consider options when it comes to managing the potential zoonotic risks, particularly with a novel virus strain like this one.

What’s the easiest (or most obvious) way to eliminate a zoonotic disease concern?

  • Eliminate the animal(s).

We’ve seen this lots of times in the past, where fear, lack education or lack of desire lead to euthanasia of pets or other animals that is completely unwarranted.  Unfortunately we’re seeing it again with the 2019 novel coronavirus.

What are we talking about, in terms of increasing awareness?

The big thing is we don’t know which animals can be infected. Too often, the default is to say “animals can’t be infected” until it changes to “oops… I guess they can.” Major agencies have said “we have no evidence that domestic animals can be infected.” That’s true. It’s also true that we have no evidence that they can’t. Some of those groups’ messages have changed over the past few days to at least say that infected people should stay away from animals, as a precaution. That’s a great start.

The prudent approach is to assume animals can be involved in coronavirus transmission until we’re sure they can’t. SARS provides a perfect example of why we need to be careful about this issue. We know now that cats and ferrets are susceptible to SARS, which is a relative of the current novel coronavirus. We also know that an SARS-infected cat can infect another cat, and the same goes for ferrets. So, it’s reasonable to assume that cats, dogs, ferrets and/or other animals could be infected by other related coronaviruses too.

What does that mean we should do?

Pay attention but not panic. My general line is that we need to treat animals like people. If someone is infected, the response would include tracing that person’s contacts. Typically, that means human contacts. For me, that means anything with a pulse. If someone is infected and their spouse is being quarantined, the same quarantine should apply to their pets.

What are we talking about in terms of decreasing paranoia?

Thinking about the potential role of animals is great.  Thinking all cats are going to kill us is not. There are simple approaches to identify exposed animals and to properly manage them. Household quarantine of pets can be done. Sometimes it’s challenging (especially with dogs) but it’s doable in many households, and a few facilities (like ours) are equipped to handle quarantine of pets. My dog, Merlin, had “pretend-Ebola virus” for the day a few years ago when we were testing our Ebola containment procedures. He’s going to have “pretend-coronavirus” on Friday as we do a practice run for this virus.

Is there actually a problem?

Probably. We’re getting lots of reports from China and elsewhere about dogs being killed in large numbers. Finding out why is critical.

Is it because people are afraid they’ll get infected by their dog?

  • That’s an easy educational piece. If I don’t have coronavirus and my dog stays in the house, he’s not getting exposed. If I keep my dog away from other dogs or people, the only way he’s getting exposed is from me.

Is it because they don’t think they can care for their dog if they can’t leave the house?

  • That’s another, but different, educational piece. We need to educate people about how to manage a dog inside a house for a couple weeks.

Is it because they can’t get food for their dog, since their movements are restricted?

  • That leads to a need to figure out a support system, just like a person would need to get food/groceries for themselves.

Knowledge vacuums lead to fear. Fear leads to knee jerk decisions, and those often lead to bad outcomes. It’s a scary situation in areas where this virus is active and fear-based responses are understandable, but still unfortunate. However, we can do a better job managing the virus and the fear. In areas where this virus has not yet established itself, it comes down to:

  • Ensuring animal contacts of human cases are queried.
  • Ensuring exposed animals are quarantined.
  • Using good old fashioned infection control, like hand washing.
  • Keeping the fear at bay and applying logic to the problem.

A long post (rant), but that’s a quick summary of what I’ve been dealing with.

I’ll probably post some “Merlin’s day with coronavirus” pictures later this week.