Facts, Not Fear

Veterinarian Busts Myths About Animals and Coronavirus

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
There are more than 200 different coronaviruses, and it is very uncommon for them to cross species, according to Dr. John Howe, a veterinarian out of Minnesota and current president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Claire Vath)

Panicked decisions are almost always bad decisions. Reports from parts of China in February, when COVID-19 cases were on the rise, revealed mass killings of pets due to fears they might be able to infect people with the virus. The killings can only be characterized as brutal. And according to the head of a national veterinary organization, they were also unnecessary.

Here in the U.S., the same types of rumors are spreading over social media sites, most recently fueled by reports that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for COVID-19. Putting aside emotion, what do the facts say about the danger animals, whether livestock or pets, pose to people in terms of spreading COVID-19? A good place to go for answers is the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Dr. John Howe, a veterinarian out of Minnesota and current president of the AVMA, says there is a lot of misinformation in the media now. He spoke to DTN/Progressive Farmer to try to help separate fact from fear as the U.S. works through its own response to COVID-19. He starts by noting there are more than 200 different coronaviruses, and it is very uncommon for them to cross species.

"Cattle, for example, have a specific coronavirus, horses have their own, swine have theirs, dogs and cats have theirs. They are all different," Howe explains. "These viruses don't cross immunity. When you vaccinate against one, it doesn't confer immunity against another. So it does you no good, for example, to vaccinate a pig with a cat coronavirus because the two are totally different."

DESPERATE, DANGEROUS MEASURES

Howe stresses some in the veterinarian community have that heard misinformed people are starting to think they can vaccinate themselves with an animal vaccine to gain some sort of immunity to COVID-19. Not only does this not work, but it can cause serious reactions.

Another strange idea making the rounds is that ivermectin might be effective against COVID-19. Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic, and is the active ingredient found in heartworm medications for animals. This is another poor, misinformed idea, which is dangerous.

Howe explains: "This comes out of some research that showed ivermectin at 50 times the normal dose you'd use in practice, was found to have some antiviral activity. It is true we give ivermectin to animals, and we also give it to humans in some cases. But at the dose rate it would have to be given to have antiviral activity, it would result in severe central nervous system toxicity, and it would kill the brain."

Howe emphasizes he's not aware that people have actually acted on these ideas yet, but the fact that they have made the rounds in the media raises fears someone could be so misinformed, and so desperate, that they might pursue these dangerous courses.

TRANSMISSION BETWEEN SPECIES

Can COVID-19 be transmitted between animal species and people or from people to animals? Howe says there is no evidence in the U.S. of any domestic animals or livestock getting the virus from people. He notes the case of the tiger at the Bronx Zoo, where the zookeeper was shedding the virus and coming into contact with the tiger, might indicate it could be passed from people to big cats. That is not the same as a house cat, however.

"You can't equate large wild cats with domestic cats," he says. "African lions, for example, can get canine distemper and domestic cats can't. There are lots of differences. So we don't need to jump to conclusions."

He says, "Based on what we know, there were two dogs in China and one cat that tested a mild positive. They had no clinical signs. They later tested negative. Those tests, it's important to note, were PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests, which can detect even a part of a viral particle. That could have been licked up off the floor. Just finding a part of a virus particle doesn't mean the animal was sick with it."

There are simply no instances of domestic animals or livestock giving the virus to people, Howe stresses.

He adds that there are more than 1 million cases of COVID-19 in the world and there are no reports that pets are getting sick from their owners. There is no reason, he says, to get rid of a pet. You won't give this to them, and they won't give it to you.

SAFE HANDLING RECOMMENDATIONS

The AVMA has issued recommendations for livestock producers, as well as for veterinarians, in terms of handling animals and working with clients.

"First, with regards to livestock producers, I'm saying just use common sense. Be cautious if you are sick, and if you can avoid working livestock at this time, do so. Wash your hands before and after working or handling animals. The virus is introduced intra-nasally. So if you're sick, try to stay away, and if you can wear a mask, do so. If there is someone else available to do the job while you're sick, let them."

The AVMA has also issued guidelines for veterinarians in terms of working with clients and their animals. People should expect their veterinarians to ask screening questions, including whether anyone on the farm or ranch is showing symptoms of illness. If not, the veterinarian will bring minimum staff to perform the necessary task and will keep 6 feet apart from people for biosecurity.

"Livestock producers are very familiar with biosecurity and its importance," notes Howe. "Swine producers, for example, know it's shower-in and shower-out, foot baths, scrubbing boots before and after visits, etc. We are well equipped in the livestock industry to deal with this. In a lot of ways, it's normal biosecurity."

VETERINARIAN CHALLENGES

Concerns among veterinarians right now include the business economy and supplies of personal protection equipment. Howe says many clinics are looking at shortages of some personal protection equipment after donating supplies to area healthcare workers.

"As a result, we are conserving what we have as much as possible," he says.

At clinics, where mostly small animals are treated, Howe notes visitors should expect differences in protocol and cooperate with clinic staff.

"Again, there is going to be a screening process," he says. "Also, people should call first. Many veterinarians are putting off nonessential things like vaccinations for now. In some cases, staff will come to the car so owners don't have to come into the clinic. There are a lot of safeguards in place to protect people and veterinarians and their staffs."

Like many businesses, Howe adds the COVID-19 crisis is taking a toll on veterinary businesses as well. The economic damage across the profession is huge.

"Many have laid off help, and they are down to the bare essentials. If they weren't able to file with the CARES Act for unemployment to help get staff wages paid, many of their employees are going on unemployment and looking for other work. This is detrimental to veterinary medicine, and it will create challenges in the future. We are hopeful recovery will happen quickly, and that in less urban areas we will be able to start businesses back in May."

Lastly, Howe notes if a livestock producer isn't sick, they shouldn't be overly worried about COVID-19. Be mindful of distancing, wash your hands, and "just use a little common sense," he says, adding, "Don't kiss your horse."

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Editor's note: The AVMA website is being updated several times a day with both national and international news related to COVID-19. This is where readers can find those at the forefront, with leading knowledge on COVID-19 issues, as they related to livestock, pets and the veterinarian profession. Go to: AVMA.org/coronavirus for the most current reports.

Victoria G. Myers can be reached at Vicki.Myers@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @myersPF

(AG/ SK)

Victoria Myers