Coronavirus; Are animals to blame?

Coronavirus; Are animals to blame?

We’ve (just) survived the Bushfire Disaster in Australia, and now it’s happening again – disease outbreaks are a bit like fires – where the virus is the fire, and susceptible people and animals are the fuel.

The Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has caused division and controversy in our society, with the crisis had already infected more people than the SARS outbreak did in a year. With all of this, it seems there are more questions than answers. We’re bringing a veterinary perspective to the current outbreak, in the hope to educate people.

Origin – are animals to blame?

The origin of the coronavirus implicated in the current global pandemic (2019n-cov) is almost certainly from animals for the following reasons in my opinion:

  • The DNA of the virus has 96% of the genes of bat coronavirus,
  • Almost all of the first cases diagnosed were from workers at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan

Swabs from the market selling live animals to be eaten showed almost 10% of the animals there had Wuhan coronavirus! This is just staggering

‘Ye wei’ is the Chinese term for ‘exotic meat’, and the Huanan wet market specialises in the sale of wildlife; with the South China Morning Post reporting that the market had more than 120 species of wildlife being sold live as food including badgers, hedgehogs, wolf pups, bats, snakes and even koalas.

The biggest trouble with this virus is that it doesn’t cause symptoms in those wild animals who have it. How is this possible? Think of it like pro-biotics that we may take – they are teeming with bacteria, but the bacteria don’t cause symptoms or disease in us as we have evolved to live with them. So bats that are infected with this coronavirus can live happily with the virus in their gastrointestinal tract. But when they are killed for food, and eaten raw or improperly cooked, the virus can infect humans where it does cause symptoms.

The market conditions make the matter so much worse also as the animals after a long journey to the market were kept in very unnatural conditions that caused stress:

  • Predator and prey being housed next to each other (Imagine if you were kept in a cage next to a tiger showing its teeth at you!)
  • High density with cages being put on top of cages

These stressors make all viruses replicate more and shed to the environment more.

How can these exotic animals live with coronavirus, but in people it causes sickness? Each animal species is affected by a virus differently.

Experts in DNA analysis have proven the existence of coronavirus in bats and civets and other wildlife even in the fossil record, so it’s highly likely that due to the sheer length of time that coronaviruses have been infecting these animals, they have developed coping mechanisms for surviving with the virus.

The animals that couldn’t cope with the infection of the virus would die, and those that did not die (either through having a mutation in their immune system that allowed them to combat the virus, or some other factor), would survive and reproduce, spreading the ability to live with coronavirus to the next generation, and so on.

 

Should we (temporarily) become vegans now in the interest of safety?

With the current Wuhan Coronavirus being clearly from animals, especially exotic ones, it would make sense not to eat them.

However, given the current evidence that a temperature of 53 degrees Celsius will kill the Wuhan coronavirus after 30 minutes, thoroughly cooking the animals should render them safe to eat. That’s not to say that it is ethical to eat these animals and some say they never should be eaten.

The Wuhan outbreak also raises the question of whether wildlife trade needs better oversight, or ought to be shuttered for good.

Can pets catch Coronavirus?

There are a few coronavirus strains that have been infecting our companion animal friends since the beginning of their domestication, and there’s even a vaccine available for the one in dogs!

Coronavirus in dogs is actually really common and highly contagious, but only normally causes mild gastro symptoms like diarrhoea and vomiting (if any symptoms at all). Sometimes it can even be a lifelong infection as the virus can reproduce by itself in your dog’s intestine’s cells. In stressed, old dogs, or dogs with other sicknesses, however, coronavirus can cause more serious gastroenteritis that requires hospitalisation.

There’s a rapid DNA test for coronavirus our laboratory offers, and with just 1 gram of your dog’s poop and a 48 hour wait, we can diagnose if your dog has coronavirus. My own dog, Bonnie, had coronavirus diagnosed years ago by this test. She’s totally fine and only had mild diarrhoea.

Cat coronavirus is a bit more interesting though. Like with dog coronavirus, it rarely causes any problems at all, and most infected cats never show any symptoms at all. However, when this virus decides to mutate (we don’t know what causes the mutation yet), it creates a horrible, scary disease called Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) which shuts down all the organs in pet cats and causes fluid to accumulate in the belly, lungs and brains of affected cats. It’s an incredibly painful disease and has a protracted length of suffering until death ensues. There’s no treatment at all and a diagnosis of FIP is a death sentence with euthanasia recommended as soon as a diagnosis of FIP is made to avoid suffering. However, there’s a more alarming statistic – that ‘more cats die due to euthanasia after a botched diagnosis of FIP than FIP itself’. While there are multiple tests out there, there is only one test that offers a confident diagnosis of FIP – that is ‘immunohistochemistry’ (a fancy word for identifying the virus itself in the tissue of the cat). The downside of this test is it requires a surgical biopsy of parts of the cat.

Should you rehome your pets if they’ve got coronavirus?

Absolutely not! The coronavirus dogs and cats get is totally different to the coronavirus pandemic occurring now. It’s like saying that ‘water’ is the same thing as ‘fire’.

We’ve been shocked to see families in China throwing their pets to their deaths off high-rise balconies; this behaviour is deplorable and unnecessary.

Coronavirus a growing problem globally

When I graduated vet school, we learned about FIP caused by a mutant form of Coronavirus. We were told we’d be lucky to see a case of this in our careers, however, we’ve seen at least 20 cases in the last few years and this is growing year-on-year, and is now a disease that is always on our radars now when a cat presents with certain symptoms of illness.

Vaccination for coronavirus

There is a safe vaccine available against dog coronavirus, and it makes up part of the ‘lepto’ vaccine; so if your dog received the leptospirosis vaccination, they also would have been immunised against coronavirus.

Can you catch coronavirus from your dog or cat?

While there have been no human cases of coronavirus being transmitted from their pets, mutations in all viruses can happen that allows the virus to cross the species barrier, however, in all the hundreds of years of monitoring, this hasn’t happened with the dog or cat coronavirus.

Author: Dr. Sam Kovac BVSc (Merit)