New Guidelines: No Euthanasia for Dogs Exposed to Ebola

In 2014, a Spanish dog was euthanized after having possibly been exposed to Ebola. That won't happen again.


Remember the Ebola outbreak of 2014? Or rather I should say, remember the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015 that is still going on and still having a massive impact on west Africa to this very day?

I wrote about Ebola in October 2014. Specifically, I wrote about two main topics. One topic revolved around whether dogs exposed to the virus should be euthanized (I said that it did not make sense to euthanize such dogs, but since governments, which are immune to sensibility, run public health departments, the poor dogs in question could not expect sense to prevail).

I also discussed the fickle nature of the mainstream media and the news cycle. Back in October, the Ebola crisis had stolen the stage from the unaccompanied immigrant children who were showing up at the U.S. border. And now, thanks to ISIS, the Ebola crisis is largely forgotten.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta
Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Nonetheless, although the crisis is shrinking in scale, Ebola rages on in Guinea and Sierra Leone. And the crisis has the potential to affect dogs, because the virus appears to have the potential to infect dogs (although it does not appear to make them sick).

The question in October was this: Since there was evidence that Ebola virus can infect dogs, was there any chance that dogs exposed to the virus might shed the virus and subsequently spread the infection to humans? In October, there was a general feeling that dogs probably don’t shed Ebola in sufficient quantities to pose a risk to people. However, nobody really knew for sure, and one dog in Spain paid the ultimate price for this uncertainty — after having been exposed to Ebola by his owner, he was summarily euthanized by Spanish authorities.

Excalibur the dog was euthanized by Spanish officials over Ebola fears.
Excalibur the dog was euthanized by Spanish officials over Ebola fears.

Fortunately, in the future it appears that cooler heads will prevail. New guidelines have been released that call for quarantine, rather than euthanasia, of dogs who may have been exposed to the virus.

A protocol involving quarantine was first performed on a dog named Bentley, owned by Nina Pham. Pham was a nurse who contracted Ebola in Texas. She was treated and made a complete recovery. Bentley underwent at 21-day quarantine and was serially tested for the virus. He tested negative at all times, and was subsequently reunited with Pham.

Nina Pham and Bentley together in happier days. (Image courtesy Nina Pham's Facebook page)
Nina Pham and Bentley together in happier days. (Image courtesy Nina Pham’s Facebook page)

Since that time, a veterinary Ebola working group has developed more comprehensive guidelines, which focus largely on avoiding the need for quarantine, primarily by removing the pet from the home of a potentially exposed person during the person’s possible incubation period. Pets with known exposure to the virus are supposed to undergo mandatory 21-day quarantines with appropriate testing and viral exposure prevention for the people who work with them.

The 21-day duration of quarantine is based upon the human incubation period, and in my opinion it is somewhat spurious. Given that dogs’ reaction to Ebola infection is markedly different from that of humans, I am unconvinced that their incubation period would be the same as ours.

However, it likely doesn’t matter. There is no evidence that dogs can shed the virus and cause human exposure. Epidemiological studies in outbreak areas have not revealed any evidence that dogs serve as vectors.

In fact, it seems likely that dogs require massive exposure to the virus for anything to happen at all. All of the hullabaloo about dogs and Ebola is based on a study that revealed Ebola virus antibodies in dogs that were located in an Ebola outbreak area in 2001-2002 in Gabon.


Ebola virus under the microscope by Shutterstock
Ebola virus under the microscope by Shutterstock

Ebola antibodies occur only in response to infection with the virus. However, it is surmised that dogs become exposed through consumption of meat from animals that died of the virus, or by consuming vomit or feces (dogs do eat disgusting things) of humans with the virus. Such behaviors would lead to massive exposure to the virus.

Pampered pets in North America and Europe are not likely to be consuming Ebola-laden vomit or feces, and if there is a massive outbreak in which wild American or European animals are rampantly dying of Ebola, then we all will have bigger problems to worry about. It is unlikely that any pet in the developed world ever will contract the virus, even if the pet’s owner does.

Furthermore, all of the evidence points to the notion that Ebola infection in dogs is “non-productive,” which means that dogs don’t get sick and probably don’t shed the virus. They appear to become infected, mount an immune response, and clear the virus before it can cause any harm.

The unfortunate case of the dog in Spain, therefore, will hopefully be an isolated incident. But I am left to wonder: What on earth will ever be a big enough news story to bump ISIS out of the headlines?

Read more about dogs and Ebola:

Learn more about dog health from Dr. Eric Barchas:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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