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Pet owners shouldn't panic about the dog that died after COVID-19 infection

Media headlines have confused the relationship between pets and the coronavirus.

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How do dogs respond to COVID-19?

Getty/Darian Traynor

The coronavirus pandemic is often discussed in terms of waves. First waves, second waves. The information surrounding the pandemic works in a similar way, particularly as scientists learn more about how the disease spreads and who -- or what -- it infects.

Several companion animals tested positive for COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic. In March, a 17-year-old dog in Hong Kong became infected. It later died, but COVID-19 was not believed to have been the chief cause. Tigers at the Bronx Zoo were also found to have been infected, likely by a human handler who also tested positive for the disease. The animals were expected to make a full recovery.

Pet owners have long been concerned their pets may catch or spread COVID-19. After I published a story on COVID-19 in pets back in May, I was inundated with requests for information and help. "Can my dogs get coronavirus? And if they do what do I do?!? How do I know and can it kill them!!?" one reader asked via email. Another asked whether they should be wary of transferring COVID-19 between households and cats they care for. Based on the scientific evidence accrued on pet-related COVID-19, it appeared many had nothing to worry about -- very small numbers of companion animals had been infected.

But a recent story about the death of a dog in the US has sewn significant confusion.

On Wednesday, National Geographic published a heart-wrenching story about Buddy, a 7-year-old German Shepherd that recently died, months after being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It's a well-researched, well-written and timely piece, which takes a second look at how COVID-19 might affect pets. 

According to the report, Buddy became ill with COVID-19 in mid-April. He tested positive for the disease in June, the first dog in the US to be confirmed positive. On July 11, he died. However, medical records showed Buddy "likely had lymphoma, a type of cancer." Lymphoma is a common cancer for dogs that affects the lymph nodes. This important point was not conveyed in the story's headline, which caused a flurry of similar headlines to appear online.

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The COVID-19 moment was trending on Thursday.

Twitter

A day after the story broke on National Geographic, Twitter posted a moment with a headline "The first dog in the US to test positive for COVID-19 has died."

There's nothing inherently untrue about these headlines. They are factual: Buddy did test positive for COVID-19. But his cause of death has not definitively been linked to the disease. He also did not test positive for the disease at the time of his death. 

"There are a lot of things out there that are a bigger risk to dogs and cats than COVID-19," says Glenn Browning, a veterinary microbiologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

But as is often the case in the media storm that surrounds the coronavirus, the nuance gets lost in headlines, causing unnecessary fear and panic. Buddy, according to blood work performed after his death, "almost certainly" had lymphoma.

"This sounds like it was a dog that was very seriously compromised in the first place," notes Browning.

But as the Nat Geo piece rightly points out, there's a lack of information about how COVID-19 affects dogs and cats. That's the core thrust of this story: We need more information about how COVID-19 might affect cats and dogs and we need more transparent reporting about the symptoms and potential treatments for infected animals.

It wasn't sold that way, though, and, in a pandemic where misinformation is constantly being thrown around on social media with little scrutiny, that's a problem because other news organizations follow suit, compounding the initial confusion.

As far as scientists are aware, it doesn't appear companion animals play a role in transmission of COVID-19. Owners who have COVID-19 may be able to infect their pets, but pet-to-human transfer has not been recorded. 

"There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that companion animals play any role in the epidemiology of this disease," Trevor Drew, director of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, told CNET in May. Browning agrees.

"Clearly, it can very occasionally cause disease in dogs," he says. "What worries me is that people start treating dogs as a cause for concern for human infection, and that's complete nonsense."

The official advice from the CDC is to "limit their pet's interaction with people outside their household." It also suggests restricting contact with pets and animals if you are sick. If your pet becomes sick, call the veterinarian and let them know you have been sick with COVID-19.