Even as COVID-19 smolders on, Fido, Fluffy, and your pet llama do not have to wear face masks. But if you’re not feeling well, you do because the mammal most likely to spread the virus to others is you.
Coronaviruses are a very large family of microbes. Some affect humans. Others, animals. Some can pass from animals to humans. Others, vice versa. COVID-19 seems to be one of the latter varieties, a bug that can go from people to their pets.
The first such case probably happened in February when WHO confirmed that a 17-year old Pomeranian in Hong Kong living with a COVID-19-infected owner tested “weakly positive” for the virus. The owner recovered and so did the dog who showed not a single virus symptom, but sadly eventually died of old age.
Here at home, the first animal with COVID-19 was a tiger at the Bronx Zoo. He was later joined by three more tigers and three lions, all of whom had been exposed to a human with the virus and all of whom, along with the human, recovered.
A recent study from the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine confirmed that cats, big and domestic, are susceptible to the virus which they easily pick up from us and then pass around to other felines even when living in separate cages.
Naturally, this has produced recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about how to protect our companion and service cats and dogs. (Up to now, the agency has very little to say about pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, wildlife, or other animals such as reptiles and birds. But stick around, you people with pet Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. You never know what’s coming next.)
The rules are simple and straightforward:
1. Don’t let your pets interact with strange humans.
2. Keep cats indoors.
3. Walk your dog on a leash and keep him or her the proverbial six feet from other animals.
4. Wash your hands after handling the animals. If you’re not feeling well, no petting, snuggling, kissing, licking or sharing bed and bedding allowed. If possible, let someone else care for the animals.
After that, the next interesting thing is that animals may have a role to play in treating COVID-19 in humans. Right now, as you read this, Norman, Digby, Storm, Star, Jasper and Asher, a cohort of six British labs and cocker spaniels already trained to detect odors of certain cancers, malaria and Parkinson's disease, are enrolled in a six week trial sponsored by the charity Medical Detection Dogs at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and Durham University where they will hopefully learn to identify the scent of the virus in humans even before symptoms appear.
No, the group does not include llamas, members of the camel family Camelidae which also includes alpacas and vicunas. But in 2016, researchers at the University of Texas (Austin) along with colleagues at Ghent University in Belgium were studying llama antibodies to see if they were effective against the coronaviruses that cause Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Last week, the group published a report in the medical journal Cell showing that unlike humans, llamas have not just one but two antibodies that might attack the COVID-19 virus. Whether injecting these antibodies into humans is safe remains to be seen. So once again, stick around for the next chapter in the story.