As I write this, Teresa Romero Ramos, a nurse assistant in Spain, is battling for her life against Ebola virus disease. Despite local protests and objections voiced via a global social media campaign, a court order mandated that Teresa’s elderly, but overtly healthy dog named Excalibur be euthanized. His remains were “put into a sealed biosecurity device and transferred for incineration to an authorized disposal facility.”

Nina Pham with Bentley Courtesy of Pham family

And now, a nurse in Texas named Nina Pham has tested positive for the virus, the result of helping care for the first Ebola victim in the United States. Nina also has a dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Bentley who has been moved to an undisclosed location and is under the care of Dallas Animal Services. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins stated,

When I met with her parents, they said, “This dog is important to her, judge. Don’t let anything happen to the dog.” If that dog has to be The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, we’re going to take good care of that dog.

Here are two vastly different approaches to two similar situations. Which approach best serves public safety and peace of mind? I certainly don’t have a well-informed answer to this question. I’m not sure there is anyone who does.

What we know

I was able to come up with only one study pertaining to Ebola virus infections in dogs. Published in 2005 in Emerging Infectious Diseases, the authors examined 439 dogs, some of which were living in the midst of an Ebola outbreak in Gabon, a country on the west coast of Africa.

Blood samples from the dogs were evaluated for antibodies to Ebola virus. (Antibodies are the foot soldiers of the immune system that are manufactured in response to the presence of an infectious organism.) Of the dogs from villages with both infected animal carcasses and human cases of Ebola, 31.8% tested positive for antibodies to the virus. None of them showed any symptoms of disease.

This study clarifies that dogs can be infected with Ebola virus, and they experience no infection-associated symptoms.

What we don’t know

There remains a great deal to learn about canine Ebola virus infections. Given the evolution of Ebola and growing public awareness and concern, we are in critical need of answers to the following questions:

  • • How do dogs become infected with Ebola virus?
  • •Do infected dogs shed the virus in their bodily fluids? If so, which bodily fluids and for how long?
  • •Is canine Ebola contagious to other animals, including humans?
  • •Do dogs serve as fomites for Ebola? A fomite is defined as an object (animate or inanimate) that is capable of carrying and transferring an infectious organism from one individual to another. Classic examples of fomites include used tissues, drinking glasses, and articles of clothing. We know that the Ebola virus survives for days if not weeks after being shed into the environment.
  • •How long do antibodies remain in a dog’s bloodstream following infection?
  • •Why don’t infected dogs become sick? The answer to this might shed some light on ways to mitigate illness in people infected with Ebola
  • Information from the Centers for Disease ControlThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently working with the American Veterinary Medical Association to provide information for veterinarians pertaining to pets and Ebola virus. The CDC has a new page on their website devoted to “Questions and Answers about Ebola and Pets.” Have a look, but be forewarned- you may come away with more questions than answers.
  • What’s next?

    I really don’t know how the concerns about pets and Ebola virus will play out. My hopes are that panic will not prevail and that research efforts to understand more about Ebola virus in pets will become an immediate priority.

    Veterinarians, myself included, are pondering what we will do if asked to care for a pet that has been exposed to Ebola virus. Given how little evidence-based information is available, I think our skittishness is justified.

    I will keep you posted on any new developments in our understanding of how Ebola virus impacts our pets. In the meantime, let’s all keep our fingers crossed for Teresa Romero Ramos, Nina Pham, and Bentley.

    How do you feel about the recent decisions made concerning Excalibur and Bentley?

    Nancy Kay D.V.M.
    Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
    Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
    Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
    Website: http://www.speakingforspot.com
    Spot’s Blog: http://www.speakingforspot.com/blog
    Email: dr.kay@speakingforspot.com
    Facebook:http://www.facebook.com/speakingforspot