Peter Andrews is an Irish science journalist and writer, based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in genetics
Two weeks ago, RT reported on the first known case of a dog having contracted the coronavirus. Now, it is sad to report that the dog has died… although apparently not of the virus itself.
The dog was first quarantined on February 26 after its owner caught the coronavirus in February. The dog’s nasal and oral cavities had shown weak positive results for the new coronavirus. Its nasal swabs all tested positive up until March 9, but from March 12 the test results began to come back negative.
Two other dogs and one cat have also been quarantined at the Hong Kong Port of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, where there is an animal keeping facility. However, none have tested positive for the coronavirus, making this Pomeranian the only known case worldwide of a non-human animal with the virus.
The dog’s owner is Yvonne Chow Hau Yee, a 60-year-old woman who was initially hospitalised, but made a full recovery and returned home on March 8. The viral samples from Ms. Yee and her dog were sequenced, and genetically were almost identical, indicating that she had very likely given it to her dog. Some of Ms. Yee’s close contacts also contracted Covid-19.
Over the weekend, after completing the two-week quarantine period and consecutive negative test results, the dog was sent home. But the most recent development in this unique case is a morbid one. The South China Morning Post has learned from Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) that the dog died on Monday. They released the following statement: “The department learned from the dog’s owner that it had passed away on March 16.”
The dog was a 17-year old Pomeranian, making it very old in dog years, although smaller breeds such as Pomeranians do tend to live longer than larger breeds. The old-fashioned way of calculating the dog’s ‘human age’ is multiplying by seven, and seven times 17 is 119—older than the oldest living human. However, animal experts have invented a more refined method of scaling a dog’s age, based on what size it is, according to which this dog would have been around 84 in human years. This would have put it well into the risk demographics for Covid-19 if it was a human, which perhaps explains why the owner was worried enough to have it tested after she herself fell ill with the disease.
According to Hong Kong’s AFCD, “The owner said she was not willing to [allow] an autopsy to examine the cause of death.” Therefore, we may never know exactly what killed this poor pooch—whether it was the plague currently ravaging the human species, or simply natural causes. It is impossible to attribute its death to Covid-19 because to the best of the Hong Kong scientists’ knowledge, it cleared the virus before being allowed home.
However, the virus could not have done the old dog’s health much good. Imagine if it was an elderly person instead of a dog, who contracted a respiratory virus and cleared it, but still died a short time later. The virus could have damaged the immune system just enough to put the dog in peril of death. Perhaps the ordeal of being separated from its owner, and being poked and prodded by HazMat-suited scientists for two weeks (even when treated with the utmost care and professionalism) was too much for the old pooch, and wore out the last of its resolve.
What does this mean for my pet?
There has been a lot of information flying about around this case, with the WHO and other organisations eager to react quickly by amending their recommendations about pets and coronavirus as soon as it was confirmed that the dog had tested positive.
The Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department’s (AFCD) current advice is as follows: “We strongly advise that mammalian pet animals including dogs and cats from households with… infected persons should be put under quarantine… to safeguard public and animal health.”
Meanwhile, the WHO website states the following: “To date, there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease.” However, they do recommend that, until further research can be conducted, people sick with Covid-19 limit contact with pets and other animals, and wear facemasks if possible. They also recommend that, as usual, people and their children should wash their hands after contact with pets in any case, as faecal matter containing E. coli could be transmitted from pets.
So then, what is the long and the short of this story? Can your pet get Covid-19 or not? The answer appears to be yes it can, in theory, and the most likely source is you. But it is unlikely that the pet can transmit it to other people in your household, or indeed any other animal. And based on this one case, there is not even a suggestion – so far – that your dog will be sick.
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