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 because of fears they might be able to infect people with the virus. The killings can only be characterized as brutal. They were also unnecessary.
In the U.S., the same type of rumors spread over social media sites, initially fueled by reports 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).
John Howe, a veterinarian out of Minnesota and current president of the AVMA, says throughout the pandemic, there was a lot of misinformation in the media. He believes it's important to separate fact from fear and starts by noting there are more than 200 different coronaviruses.
"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."
Howe says during the peak of the virus, some misinformed people thought they could use an animal vaccine to gain immunity to COVID-19. Not only does this not work, but it can cause serious reactions.
Another strange idea making the rounds was that ivermectin might be effective against COVID-19. Ivermectin is an antiparasitic and the active ingredient found in heartworm medications for animals. This is another poor, misinformed idea that 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."
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Howe says the fact that ideas such as these were making the rounds in the media raises fears someone could be so misinformed, and so desperate, that they might pursue such dangerous courses.
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Can COVID-19 be transmitted from domestic animals or livestock to people? At press time, Howe said there was no evidence to indicate this was the case, but researchers were tracking the situation closely.
"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."
Addressing the case of the tiger at the Bronx Zoo, Howe says the zookeeper was shedding the virus and coming into contact with the tiger. This might indicate COVID-19 could be passed from people to big cats. That is not the same as a house cat.
"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."
The AVMA issued recommendations early in the pandemic for livestock producers, as well as for veterinarians, in terms of handling animals and working with clients. Those still hold true, Howe says.
"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," he says.
"Wash your hands before and after working or handling animals," Howe adds. "The virus is introduced intranasally. 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."
AVMA guidelines for veterinarians, in terms of working with clients and their animals, include the use of screening questions prior to treatment. People should expect to be asked whether anyone on the farm or ranch is showing symptoms of illness. If not, the veterinarian will bring minimum staff to perform the job and will keep 6 feet apart from people for biosecurity.
"Livestock producers are very familiar with biosecurity and its importance," Howe notes. "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."
Veterinarians have had a number of serious business challenges connected to COVID-19. Howe says many clinics had shortages of personal protection equipment after donating supplies to area health-care workers. And, at clinics where small animals are treated, he notes visitors likely saw differences in protocol.
"Many veterinarians put off nonessential things like vaccinations, and in some cases, staff came to cars so owners didn't have to come into the clinic. There were a lot of safeguards in place to protect people and veterinarians and their staffs."
COVID-19 continues to take an economic toll on veterinary clinics. Many were forced to lay off help, Howe explains, and they were down to bare essentials. Many employees lost jobs, a step Howe says was detrimental to veterinary medicine and will continue to create challenges in the future.
On the farm, Howe concludes livestock producers shouldn't be overly worried when it comes to the virus.
"Be mindful of distancing, wash your hands and just use a little common sense," he says, adding, "don't kiss your horse."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
> AVMA COVID-19 Resources: avma.org/coronavirus
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