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Ebola pet threat? No evidence that dogs or cats spread the virus

Study: Though dogs have been infected with the Ebola virus, it doesn't seem to make them sick

Public health experts and animal lovers are carefully monitoring the health of a Dallas-area resident who may have had close contact with Nina Pham, the nurse being treated for Ebola virus disease at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

So far, there are no indications that Bentley, Pham’s 1-year-old King Charles spaniel, has been infected with Ebola or become sick as a result. Bentley is now in the care of the the Dallas Animal Services and Adoption Center and being quarantined at “an undisclosed location,” according to the DAS Facebook page.

Workers watching over Bentley have donned full-body protective suits to make sure they don’t catch the deadly virus from Pham’s pet, if indeed he is infected. But the risk that a person could catch Ebola from a dog is exceedingly low, experts say.

There has not been a single case of a dog or cat spreading the virus to people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, the CDC adds, “there have been no reports of dogs or cats becoming sick with Ebola” – not even in Africa, where the virus was first identified in the 1970s.

That’s not to say that pets aren’t vulnerable to infection – there is scientific evidence that they are.  During an Ebola outbreak in the African nation of Gabon in 2001 and 2002, researchers tested the blood of 258 dogs from various parts of the country and detected Ebola antibodies in more than 25% of the animals from villages in the epidemic area. For the sake of comparison, they also tested 102 dogs in France and found similar antibodies in two of them, though they could have been false-positives, according to their report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

How did the dogs in Gabon get the virus? Probably not through casual contact, the researchers wrote: “We observed that some dogs ate fresh remains of Ebola-virus-infected dead animals brought back to the villages, and that others licked vomit from Ebola virus-infected patients.”

Even so, none of the dogs displayed any symptoms of Ebola virus disease, the researchers noted. What’s more, none of the canine blood samples contained genetic sequences from the virus, and the researchers weren’t able to isolate the virus from the blood samples either, according to the study. Though some of the dogs were surely infected, perhaps the virus didn’t make them sick or caused only a “very mild” infection, the researchers wrote.

If a dog or cat becomes infected with Ebola, it is unclear whether the virus can then spread through the animal’s body, fur or paws, the CDC says. If a pet may have been exposed to the virus, local health officials should consult with a veterinarian to determine “how the pet should be handled,” according to the federal health agency.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Assn. recommends that pets exposed to Ebola be quarantined and tested.

“It is possible that dogs may harbor the virus, particularly in endemic areas where they may roam and have access to infected animal carcasses,” WSAVA says. “However, house pets that may potentially be exposed in developed countries represent a very different scenario.”

The group chided Spanish officials for euthanizing the dog of Ebola patient Teresa Romero Ramos, a nursing assistant who contracted the virus while caring for missionaries who had been sickened by it in West Africa.

The pet, Excalibur, was not tested for the virus, WSAVA said, and it’s not clear that the dog was even infected. Ramos’ husband pleaded for the pet’s life, saying in a video that “they want to kill him for no reason.”

Madrid’s Health Ministry obtained a court order to euthanize Excalibur on the grounds that it was the only way to be absolutely sure the dog wouldn’t spread the virus to others.

If you would like to have your own dog or cat tested for Ebola, you’re out of luck – such tests are not available, according to the CDC. But there’s no cause for worry, the agency says: There is no reason to test a pet that’s never been exposed to an infected person, and in any event the risk of catching Ebola from a pet is “very low.”

For more medical news, follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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