Coronavirus False Alarm for Pet Pug Highlights Importance of Confirmatory Testing
Reports of a pet dog testing positive for the new coronavirus circulated in April, but the USDA was unable to confirm the result.
On April 28, a pug in North Carolina was reported to be the first known pet dog in the U.S. to test positive for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).¹ But confirmatory testing failed to show that the dog was infected with the new coronavirus, further solidifying that very few pets are testing positive despite thousands being tested.²
The pug belongs to a pediatrician participating in a COVID-19 study at Duke University. Dr. Heather McLean, a pediatrician at Duke University, and the McLean family took part in the Molecular and Epidemiological Study of Suspected Infection (MESSI) research study on April 1.
The pediatrician, her husband, and their son also tested positive for coronavirus infection, while the couple’s daughter, their other dog, and a pet cat did not. The pug had positive results of a quantitative PCR test for SARS-CoV-2 and reportedly displayed mild signs of illness for several days. The signs were coughing and one day of inappetence.¹ Winston the pug was sick for a few days and is thankfully reported to be doing much better.
After the reports of the positive test from the Duke University study, oral and rectal swab specimens and blood were collected from the 3 pets in the household by public health veterinarians. These were submitted to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) for confirmatory testing.
The NVSL was unable to verify infection in the pug. No virus was isolated and there was no evidence of an immune response based on a virus neutralization test. Additional information shows the pug was not evaluated by a veterinarian at the time of the initial confirmation. Based on the results available from the NVSL, it appears the weak detection of viral RNA by PCR may be the result of contamination from the COVID-19 positive household.
This case exemplifies why it is critical for confirmatory testing to be completed before reaching a final conclusion as to whether a pet is truly infected with SARS-CoV-2.
Veterinary teams should be prepared to discuss with pet owners the concern that their pets may contract or spread COVID-19 to humans. Veterinary teams should continue to educate owners that the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) continues to monitor animals and SARS-CoV-2 and again reinforces that there is still no evidence that pets play a role in spreading the virus.³ Consequently, veterinary teams need to reiterate that there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals that may compromise their welfare.
Although there is no evidence that animals play a role in the spread of human infections with SARS-CoV-2, it is still recommended that people who are suspected or confirmed to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 limit contact with animals.
When interacting with pets, basic hygiene measures should always be applied. This includes hand washing before and after being around or handling animals, their food, or supplies, as well as avoiding kissing, being licked by animals, or sharing food. Owners suspected or confirmed to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 should minimize contact with animals, including farm animals, zoo animals, other captive animals, and wildlife.
Social distancing regarding pets is recommended as well. Animals belonging to owners infected with SARS-CoV-2 should be kept indoors as much as possible and contact with those pets should be avoided as much as possible.
Regarding pets, the AVMA is encouraging following the CDC’s recommendations:4,5
• Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
• Keep pet cats indoors to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
• Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals.
• Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
As the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) considers SARS-CoV-2 an emerging disease, the USDA must comply, and report confirmed U.S. animal infections to the OIE.3 As no evidence was found by the NVSL, no report was made to the OIE regarding the pug in question.
Most likely we will continue to hear of pets testing positive, which will result in owners increased anxiety regarding their own pets. Take each question as it comes. Listen and give fact-based answers in a calm and reassuring tone. People are scared. Be knowledgeable and positive and above all be kind.
1. Chapel Hill pug tests positive for virus that causes COVID-19; first known case in a dog in the US. https://www.wral.com/coronavirus/chapel-hill-pug-tests-positive-for-virus-that-causes-covid-19-first-known-case-in-a-dog-in-the-us/19074499/. Accessed April 28, 2020.
2.USDA. Confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in Animals in the United States. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/sa_one_health/sars-cov-2-animals-us. Accessed June 2, 2020.
3. World Organization for Animal Health. Q & A on the COVID-19. https://www.oie.int/en/scientific-expertise/specific-information-and-recommendations/questions-and-answers-on-2019novel-coronavirus/. Accessed April 28, 2020.
4. USDA. Confirmation of COVID-19 in Two Pet Cats in New York. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/newsroom/news/sa_by_date/sa-2020/sars-cov-2-animals. Accessed April 22, 2020.
5. AVMA. SARS-CoV-2 in pets. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19/sars-cov-2-animals-including-pets. Accessed April 23, 2020.