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Why a dog testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the US isn’t necessarily a bad thing

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A pet dog in North Carolina is believed to be the first dog in the US to have tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the New York Times reports.

The mother, father, and son of the family who own the dog—a pug named Winston—tested positive for COVID-19, according to local news channel WRAL. Both parents are health-care workers who were likely exposed to the infection while at work.

The mother told WRAL that Winston had shown mild symptoms, explaining, “Pugs are a little unusual in that they cough and sneeze in a very strange way. So it almost seems like he was gagging, and there was one day when he didn’t want to eat his breakfast, and if you know pugs you know they love to eat, so that seemed very unusual.”

The son told WRAL that “(The dog) licks all of our dinner plates and sleeps in my mom’s bed, and we’re the ones who put our faces into his face. So, it makes sense that he got [coronavirus].”

Winston is the first dog to test positive for SARS-CoV-2 since two dogs made headlines for testing positive in Hong Kong in early March, although there has been a a brisk run of cats, from pets to Siberian tigers, who have tested positive in recent weeks.

But the news about Winston hasn’t come as a shock to everyone.

“It’s completely unsurprising,” J. Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM, told NEWStat.

Weese, associate professor in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and a contributing reviewer of AAHA’s Infection Control, Prevention, and Biosecurity Guidelines, has been tracking coronavirus developments for months in his blog.

“We know there’s a chance dogs can get infected. And we know that there are a lot of dogs getting exposed,” Weese said. He points out that in the handful of documented cases of SARS-CoV-2 in pets, all had been exposed to humans who’d tested positive for COVID-19, and that over a million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US means that “a large, large number of animals” have obviously been exposed. “Even if a very small percentage get infected, we’re going to see some [pets test positive].”

“Finding this dog doesn’t change the story,” Weese adds. “It’s primarily a human problem. It doesn’t raise any concerns [about pets] at all.”

Interestingly, Weese thinks Winston testing positive has a silver lining: “For me, it means we’re starting to get a handle on the questions we’ve been trying to answer.” He points out that, at worst, Winston was “mildly sick.”

“It’s reinforcing what we know,” Weese says. “We don’t think dogs are really going to get sick from this virus.”

In fact, Weese says, the more we see, the more it reinforces what we know. “This is a situation that made complete sense. [Winston] was owned by a health-care worker who was infected on the job. There were people infected in the household. We’ve got spillover in the dog. They’re all going through it together, and they’re all going to get over it together.”

Health organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association and the CDC, still don’t advocate routine testing for pets, and Weese is in total agreement: “Did this test change anything that happened in that household?” he asks. “Not really. Because what we would have advised without testing is that everyone who’s exposed to an infected person should be isolated.”

On this, the CDC agrees with Weese, and now recommends social distancing for pets. “Finding a positive dog just reinforces why we say that everyone, including the animals, needs to be isolated,” Weese said. “But it doesn’t mean ‘we got a positive, so we’re doing something different.’ If the test result had been negative, we would still do the exact same thing for that household.”

Photo credit: © iStock/Eva Blanco