You’re probably familiar with malaria, yellow fever, dengue, Chikungunya and West Nile virus. The latest unwelcome addition to this mosquito-borne disease list is Zika virus. Here is everything every pet owner needs to know about Zika virus.

What is Zika virus?

Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda’s Zika Forest. If you’re wondering, “Zika” means “overgrown” and the forest is home to The Uganda Virus Research Institute of Entebbe. Scientists were conducting research on yellow fever in primates when they stumbled upon this stubborn mosquito-bite fever. They largely discounted Zika virus as a serious threat because the majority of victims (80%) didn’t develop significant illness.

How is it spread?

Zika virus is primarily spread through the bite of a mosquito; Aedes africanus, Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopticus have been identified as carriers, and other species may also transmit the disease. Aegypti and Albopticus are found throughout the southeastern U.S. and as far north as Connecticut.

Zika can also be transmitted through sex, and from a pregnant woman to her fetus. That’s when the virus gets dangerous.

Where is Zika virus currently?

For decades, Zika virus remained relatively confined to Africa and Asia. Cases began emerging in the Americas and Europe within the past five years with a spike in North and South American cases over the past several months.

As of August 31, 2016, there have been 2,722 Zika virus disease cases reported to ArboNET in the United States and D.C. The first cases of Zika transmitted by local mosquitoes were reported in the United States on July 29, 2016, and since then 35 locally-acquired cases have been reported. The infection has been limited to a small area of Miami, FL, leading the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a travel warning for pregnant women to this area.

On September 1, 2016, Florida officials found Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Miami, confirming the reports of local transmission.

Signs and symptoms

Signs of Zika virus infection in humans include fever, joint pain, and muscle aches, rashes, headaches and red eyes (conjunctivitis). Most people recover within a week without hospitalization, and death is extremely rare. Zika virus is directly related to yellow fever, dengue, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis virus. That is not a nice family tree.

If it’s not fatal, why all the fuss?

The biggest concern with Zika virus is it appears to cause a serious and life-threatening birth defect known as microcephaly (small head). If a pregnant female contracts Zika virus from an infected mosquito bite, she can pass the virus on to her fetus during pregnancy and the fetal brain could become underdeveloped, resulting in death or severe neurological deformation.

Zika virus has the ability to spread quickly. The first case of Zika virus in Brazil was identified in May 2015. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), 1,809 reported cases of microcephaly have been associated with Zika virus since. While we’re still unsure of the exact link between Zika virus and microcephaly, this rapid spread has officials troubled.

Scientists are also worried because there’s so much we don’t know about Zika virus and the potential harm it may cause to humans or animals. Even though we’ve known about Zika virus for nearly 70 years, extensive research is just beginning.

siamese cat in grass during summer

Can dogs and cats get Zika virus?

We don’t know. At this time there is no evidence that dogs or cats can transmit or contract Zika virus. The studies haven’t been done. There is evidence that primates and humans can become infected and transmit Zika virus through mosquito bites. Some research suggests rodents can harbor or transmit the virus.

What can I do to protect my pets?

Mosquito control is the best defense at this time against Zika virus. Unfortunately for us, Aedes mosquitoes are incredibly tough critters. They are aggressive daytime feeders and prefer people over most animals and thrive indoors or outside. The eggs of Aedes can survive dry, cold conditions for over a year and hatch into larvae as soon as they contact water. Remove any standing water from flower pots, bowls or buckets to help eliminate mosquito breeding areas.

Even if you live in cold regions, the larvae of these mosquitoes can remain dormant for months during cool weather and emerge as soon as temperatures increase. When water and warmth are present, the entire Aedes mosquito life cycle – egg to adult – can occur in as few as 10 days. Told you they were tough.

Is there a vaccine or medication?

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika virus yet. The disease isn’t widespread in North America at this time. The CDC is collaborating with worldwide infectious disease agencies and governments to reduce mosquito populations and acquire answers about Zika virus. For now, stay tuned to health alerts, and protect your dogs and cats against other mosquito-borne infections such as heartworm disease.

If you are pregnant, you should avoid travel to areas with known Zika virus. The CDC currently advises pregnant women to avoid travel to Mexico, Puerto Rico, parts of Central America and South America as well as the community in northern Miami where Zika is actively being transmitted.

The CDC Zika site is an excellent resource to keep updated on Zika virus.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 26, 2016 and has been updated for accuracy and new developments.

Feb 1, 2016
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