The risks are minimal on this side of the Atlantic, but here’s what you should know about Ebola.
Most of us have been following the ongoing news of the devastating Ebola outbreak in Africa, and keeping a close eye on the disease’s sporadic appearance in other countries, including the United States.
But few of us associated Ebola with companion animals until Excalibur, a dog belonging to Spanish nursing aide Teresa Romero Ramos, who contracted the virus, was promptly euthanized because of his exposure to the disease. Many believe that Spanish officials acted too hastily, and that there was no evidence Excalibur was infected with Ebola or could have passed it on to others.
In a second case in the U.S., a King Charles Cavalier spaniel named Bentley was quarantined for three weeks after his guardian, Dallas nurse Nina Pham, was infected with Ebola. Happily, his tests came back negative and he was subsequently returned to Nina.
So the question remains – can dogs or cats actually get Ebola, and if so, would they pose a public health threat?
A zoonotic disease
First of all, the chances of a major Ebola outbreak here in North America are remote, so the risk to the general population and our companion animals is very small. However, it’s still important to be informed, and research does confirm that Ebola is zoonotic, which means it affects both humans and animals. The disease is transmitted via direct contact with blood or body fluids; according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is no indication that it can be spread by air, water or insects.
The first recorded Ebola outbreak occurred in 1976 in the Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, where humans and a few fruit bats were infected. “According to the CDC, scientists believe the first patient became infected through contact with an infected animal, such as a fruit bat or primate, which is called a spillover event,” reports BluePearl Veterinary Partners. “Personto- person transmission follows and can lead to large numbers of affected persons.”
Because of its zoonotic nature, dogs, cats and other mammals may also contract Ebola. In dogs, it is asymptomatic, meaning it doesn’t produce symptoms like fever, malaise and bleeding. “There have been no reports of dogs becoming sick with Ebola, even though they may develop antibodies from exposure to the disease,” states BluePearl. “Certainly a greater understanding of the effects of Ebola on dogs is needed.”
More research is necessary
Unfortunately, very little research has been done on Ebola in canines, and none appears to have been done on cats. “I’m not aware of any robust studies on canine Ebola virus,” says Dr. Michael Blackwell, Senior Director of Veterinary Policy at the Humane Society of America.
In fact, the most up-to-date research done on Ebola and dogs is now ten years old. Entitled “Ebola Virus Antibody Prevalence in Dogs and Human Risk”, the study was published in 2005 and details the results of blood tests given to over 400 dogs in villages across Gabon, which suffered an Ebola epidemic from 2001 to 2002. The results showed that nearly 32% of the dogs tested positive for the virus, most likely from eating the carcasses of infected animals, although they remained asymptomatic and had developed antibodies to Ebola. The researchers also found no evidence that these dogs had transmitted the disease to other animals or people.
“There’s nothing new since (2005),” adds Lois Allela, one of the study’s authors and a veterinary inspector with the Ministry of Environment of Gabon. “The lab hasn’t approved any further research to discover if maybe we can find a vaccine.”
The good news is that the CDC reports no documented cases of dogs or cats spreading Ebola to humans or other animals, even in the hardest hit regions of West Africa.
Protecting your companion
The evidence to date suggests there’s little reason to be concerned about Ebola affecting either your human or animal family. “From the standpoint of the U.S., we shouldn’t have any grounds for concern for our animals,” says Dr. Blackwell.
Veterinarian Dr. Cathy Alinovi concurs. “While it is certainly a very scary disease, most of us are well protected from any exposure or infection,” she writes in an article at truthaboutpetfood.com. “Those at highest risk are people who travel to Africa and provide aid to the people suffering from Ebola infection. If you or anyone you know plans to travel to Africa and deliver humanitarian aid to the sufferers of Ebola, then you’ll want to avoid contact with animals on your return. Essentially the same quarantine time for avoiding humans would be how long you should avoid your dog or cat.”
Dr. Alinovi also recommends keeping your dog or cat’s immunity strong. “Supporting a healthy immune system will work great to protect your animals, no matter what the illness,” she advises. “Echinacea is a commonly used herb that can strengthen the immune system and can be used in dogs and cats. Herbal blends like Yin Qiao are great antiviral formulas. Ask your holistic veterinarian about proper dosing to protect your four-legged family.”
As of this writing, BluePearl states that “scientists and veterinarians with the AVMA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the CDC and others are continuing to develop additional guidance for the U.S. pet population”. In the meantime, there’s no need to be overly concerned about Ebola. The best protection is simply to maintain good health in yourself and your animal friends.