Ebola: Learning from a Dog

The fate of Bentley, the pet dog of hospitalized Dallas Ebola victim Nina Pham has been of great interest to animal lovers. But scientists are also paying attention. No one expects the dog to get sick, but many are curious whether he will show signs of being infected. Dogs can apparently carry the Ebola virus without getting the illness. The question is whether they can transmit it to people.

The fate of Bentley, the pet dog of hospitalized Dallas Ebola victim Nina Pham has been of great interest to animal lovers. But scientists are also paying attention. No one expects the dog to get sick, but many are curious whether he will show signs of being infected. Dogs can apparently carry the Ebola virus without getting the illness.

According to Dallas Animal Services, researchers are due to start collecting lab specimens from the dog to test for signs of Ebola, the virus that has his owner, a nurse at Texas Presbyterian Health who cared for deceased Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan. She is hospitalized in a biocontainment facility in Maryland. And while health officials said they are caring for the dog to ease Pham's concerns about his well-being, they also have their own research agenda.

There is as yet no definitive study documenting transmission of the virus from dogs to humans.

But based on a 2005 African study that showed that dogs in Ebola-ravaged villages in the Republic of Congo showed significantly more Ebola antibodies than controls, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Dallas officials quarantined the dog on Oct. 11, the same day Pham was hospitalized.

On Oct. 14, the CDC in connection with the US Department of Agriculture and the American Veterinary Medical Association issued guidelines on handling pets that have been potentially exposed to Ebola. But the rules offered little guidance, said Colin Parish, PhD a professor of virology at the Baker Institute for Animal Health at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Ithaca, NY.

The rules essentially leave it up to local officials to determine how to handle such situations. Options range from euthanizing the animal, to putting it in secure quarantine, to doing nothing.

“It was clear they were avoiding making a decision,” Parish said, “But with only one study it is a little difficult.” The study showed many of the dogs exposed in Africa had Ebola antibodies, but did not prove whether or not the dogs had transmitted the virus to humans—though the authors suggested that mode of transmission could explain why many villagers who had no known contact with infected people themselves became ill.

Parish, interviewed while attending a conference in Spain on Parvo virus said it was that study that also led Spanish officials to euthanize a dog belonging to a nurse there after she was diagnosed with Ebola.

“They felt justified,” he said, “There are 17 people in isolation in Madrid and there’s a high level of concern.”

Parish said research should also be done to see how other pets fare when exposed to Ebola. “I hate to say it,” he said, “but what about cats? Shouldn’t we be looking at them too.”