Like many, I’ve been riveted, heartbroken, and concerned as updates of the most recent Ebola pandemic have overtaken the evening news, social media, and workplace conversations. The tragic case of the Spanish nurse’s dog, Excalibur, who was euthanized after his owner was confirmed with Ebola, has raised concerns about the role dogs and other companion animals may play in spreading Ebola. The answer is we don’t know.
Ebola was first identified in Zaire in 1976. Over the past 38 years, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how Ebola infects, affects, and is transmitted in bats, antelopes, non-human primates, and humans. We know very little about Ebola in dogs. That’s not because we aren’t capable; it’s mainly due to priorities and likelihoods. Dogs haven’t been viewed as a likely source of infection and there were more prevalent, obvious targets to investigate and combat. That could change if Ebola spreads widely in the U.S. or Western Europe where it’s more common for pet dogs to live in close proximity to humans than in Africa. So what do we know about Ebola in dogs?
A French 2005 study found that dogs in the 2001-2002 Gabon outbreak had antibodies to Ebola, indicating some form of infection and exposure. They became interested in dogs after witnessing feral dogs scavenging on dead animals and even human carcasses, some undoubtedly infected with Ebola virus. The researchers concluded that dogs might be infected without developing any symptoms. They also suggested that wild dogs with Ebola antibodies could signal areas that are primed for an outbreak before human or other animal cases are reported. Think “canary in a coalmine,” only dogs in the jungle. They concluded that they didn’t know if dogs could transmit Ebola to humans without further research.
Sadly, that’s about the extent of our current knowledge on Ebola in dogs. There is no specific test for canine Ebola virus, only antibody levels after the infection has left. We don’t know if dogs develop fever, aches, gastrointestinal distress, or bleeding - we don’t know. We suspect they do, they’re mammals and this is a mammalian virus after all.
What’s really terrifying, and what the Spanish dog Excalibur’s case really revealed, is we don’t even know the incubation period of Ebola in dogs. Is it 7, 14, 21, or 28 days? Could it be longer? We know that Ebola can be transmitted in human semen for up to three months after the virus has passed, what about dogs? Is Ebola virus present in dog saliva, urine or feces? Could Ebola be transmitted by licking? We don’t know.
Our best defense is to prevent Ebola from spreading, especially to countries where dogs and commonly people live, eat, and even sleep together. Ebola, like all infections and diseases, is the world’s problem, not just Liberia, Congo, or Africa’s. Even though the answers to the questions about Ebola, dogs, and humans will never matter for most of the world, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t research, assist, and aid in every possible manner. That includes some basic research into Ebola in dogs. I hope to be able to provide you with more answers as we learn more.