Your pets have also received COVID-19. Here’s why it matters. – Texas Monthly
Your pets have also received COVID-19.  Here’s why it matters.  – Texas Monthly

Your pets have also received COVID-19. Here’s why it matters. – Texas Monthly

Brushing a dog’s teeth is hard enough. The dog looks at you complainingly with wide eyes of betrayal as you insert the toothbrush and perform a quick pantomime of a tooth cleaning in the seconds before it closes its jaws – and heart – for you.

Researchers at the laboratory at Texas A&M veterinary epidemiologist Sarah A. Hamer have a more difficult task: They need to get pets to undergo a nose job, something that even many people need to be persuaded to do. Their goal is to better understand how COVID-19 spreads from humans to their pets, and how a pet’s behavior, such as whether it shares an owner’s bed or whether it’s a productive face licker, affects this transmission.

The test has involved more than six hundred animals – mostly in central Texas – who live in households where at least one human has COVID. Only about a quarter of the pets that Hamer’s team has sampled since June 2020 have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, and only a quarter of these infected pets were symptomatic. Some suffered from sneezing, diarrhea, runny noses and irritated eyes, but the most common symptom owners reported were lethargy: their dogs and cats simply seemed more lazy than usual.

“It was all very mild disease, and it all resolved itself in a way without veterinary intervention,” Hamer said. “From our investigation, we have no evidence that the virus kills pets.” (She noted, however, that there have been reports of animals with comorbidities that have experienced more serious illness, just as humans could.)

Despite this relatively low threat to cats and dogs, laboratory work is crucial to monitoring and understanding coronavirus – especially because the pandemic is thought to stem from an incident transmitted from animals to humans. (Hamer’s team identified first known British variant of coronavirus in an animal, in March 2021.) Casey Barton Behravesh, an A&M graduate who is now an expert in zoonotic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that when viruses jump from species to species, there is an increased risk of mutations that creates new varieties. The CDC has therefore funded much of Hamer’s research and provided about $ 225,000.

“It’s important to look at both humans and animals, track mutations and the possible formation of variants so we can keep a watchful eye on what might happen,” said Barton Behravesh. “We do not want a strain that becomes more serious in relation to disease in humans or animals. We do not want a strain to occur that cannot be detected by the diagnostic tests that we have available or that can affect the therapeutic agents that become available or affect the vaccine. “

Hamer Lab recently launched another, more intensive phase of its research. It collects and tests nasal inoculations, oral inoculations and rectal inoculations from cats and dogs, as well as samples from pet food bowls and water bowls, on three separate occasions. The researchers also take samples from the owners (nonrectal). The unique challenges of testing pets require adaptations to the process used to test humans. The nasal swabs used by the laboratory, for example, do not go deep into the noses of cats and dogs, but they are extra long so that testers can keep their hands at a safe distance from the teeth if the case should take a melodramatic turn.

However, the virus is a more prominent threat than a bite. Laboratory researchers wear white Tyvek suits, face shields, boots, double gloves and N95 respirators when making their home visits. For the sake of neighbors who may be disturbed by watching a group of hazmat equipment walk across their lawns, Hamer team members sometimes wait to be dressed until they stand at the front door of the house or, if they are able to test outdoors until they are in the backyard.

Like neighbors, cats and dogs are often suspicious of visitors. Lisa Auckland, a research fellow at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M, has been present in almost every sample collection expedition Hamer’s team has conducted. “Because we look the way we do, they are usually really nervous about us. They do not know what to do about us because we look so strange,” she said. “We’re just trying to use our pet -speaking voices. “

To soothe nervous pets, team members let the animals sniff for their hands and suits. And if pets are more comfortable being tested while sitting in their owners’ lap, they should stay there. In the case of cats – especially indoor cats that tend to zoom and hide – the lab recommends that owners keep their pets in a confined space, such as a laundry room or bathroom, before the tests arrive.

Many pet owners volunteer for the study out of curiosity (quite a few have been research-interested types from the university environment). Others are just eager to do everything they can for their pet—especially during a pandemic. “We do not offer a treatment for COVID-19 in pets,” Hamer explained. “This is just surveillance. But people just want to contribute to the greater good. ”

A&M researchers and the CDC recommend that pet owners who have tested positive for COVID-19 wear masks around and isolate themselves from their pets – and from other animals – to prevent the transmission of the virus. But this advice has met with opposition from some owners. Hamer understands why. “It’s just so hard to cut yourself off from your pet,” she said. “Especially if you are not feeling well. You want to lie in bed with your pet and cuddle. “

Early in the pandemic, the lab picked up cases through the Brazos County Health Department: people who tested positive were asked if they had a pet and if they were interested in participating in Texas A&M research. If they answered yes to both, Hamer’s laboratory received their contact information. Especially during the socially isolated shutdowns of the first months of the pandemic, many volunteers were excited to be among strangers, even strangers in spacesuits. “All they wanted to do was talk,” Auckland recalled, “and we were happy to listen.”

Towards the end of the first phase of Hamer’s research, in the summer of 2020, COVID-19 cases fell, falling from a peak of about 10,400 cases a day in mid-July to about 3,200 cases a day two months later. Enrollment in the pet studio followed suit. Auckland assumed that many potential participants were quite simple “over” COVID: Although they were still getting sick, they were not interested in giving their time to science. Now that the threat from the highly contagious omicron variant has subsided in Texas, new subjects have disappeared again. (Pet owners who test positive for COVID-19 can sign up for the study here.)

Hamer’s research differs from other work with animals in part because her laboratory not only tests animals that have been brought to a veterinary clinic because they show symptoms; the team looks for animals that live in high-risk environments to see if they are sick or not. Because of this, researchers can detect cases that might otherwise go unnoticed. (That, plus the bustle of Hamer and her team, may be one of the reasons Texas disproportionately leads the U.S. Department of Agriculture list of confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in animals in the United States, with 107 cases compared to 24 in the second highest state, California.)

Barton Behravesh said COVID-19 has been seen on mink farms in Europe and in wildlife elsewhere, but the animals “often appear to be quite happy and you would not know it.” Without surveillance testing, COVID-19 could easily move from animal to animal, even between species, and eventually evolve and mutate into something more worrying.

Hamer is seeking funding to expand laboratory work beyond cats, dogs and other pets to include potential wildlife reservoirs of COVID-19, such as white-tailed deer, whose viral receptors are similar to humans. ONE prior examination by Hamer Lab showed that 34 out of 36 white-tailed deer in a Texas facility had COVID-19 antibodies, suggesting transmission from animals to animals rather than transmission due to contact between humans. (ONE a team of researchers in Canada reported recently that a white-tailed deer in Ontario may have passed COVID-19 to a human who was in close contact with the animal.)

For now, however, the risk of pet-to-human transmission of COVID-19 appears to be very low. Healthy pet owners can hold on to their cuddly non-vectors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.