• The USDA recently announced the first confirmed, conclusive case in the U.S. of COVID-19 in a dog, which showed respiratory symptoms.
  • Social distancing needs to include people and pets.
  • Pets that test COVID positive also need to be quarantine, possibly for a longer amount of time than humans.
  • The idea that animals can spread COVID to humans is still very low, but if your pet gets sick he probably got it from you, says a California veterinary surgeon.
  • If no one in your house is sick, you can still snuggle and cuddle your pets.

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE: You're watching "Coronavirus in Context." I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. You know, we've spent a little bit of time over the last few months talking about the role of pets-- either in transmitting coronavirus or actually helping us fight coronavirus. And I'm joined today by my good friend, Dr. Courtney Campbell, a veterinary surgeon in California. Dr. Campbell, thanks for joining me.

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Oh, thanks for having me, John. This is a fascinating and scintillating conversation to have. And in full disclosure, I've been looking forward to this all week long. So this is going to be really good.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, welcome back. So you were on a couple months ago when we talked about, you know, what's potential transmission from our pets to humans. And what's potential infection rates among our dogs and cats. What has changed since we talked to you a couple of months ago?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Well, it's a really auspicious time that you've asked that question, because the USDA literally just announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a dog in the United States. Why is that significant? Well, because there was a pug in North Carolina that reportedly was the first, but this is why testing is so important, because that test was never conclusive.

This test, however, was conclusive, because not only did they get PCR from the nose, they also had multiple serologic tests showing that the body actually mounted an immune response, thus proving an infection. And this is also really important too. This shows you how much we're learning. That particular dog-- the first dog-- was showing respiratory signs, which certainly flies in the face of what we've known before, which is-- or what we believed before, which is that dogs, although they could get it, are asymptomatic. If this is truly the case, this dog may be the first that we've known who is actually symptomatic. We're still learning tons.

JOHN WHYTE: So what does this mean, Dr. Campbell, in terms of us taking care of our pets?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Well, listen, my recommendations really haven't changed, and I don't think a lot of the infectious disease experts have changed in their recommendations either. And that is we need to-- social distancing needs to include both us and our pets. Now, there have been discussions about a mink outbreak in the Netherlands, which they had confirmed mink-to-human transmission based on gene sequencing. There's also a cat in, I believe, Minnesota who has now been proven positive for coronavirus as well.

So still, the idea that animals can spread coronavirus to humans, I think the risk as of today-- as of what we know now-- is still very low. If your pet gets it, he probably got it from you. And what's important about this is that we really need to isolate pets 14 days past the date of last known risk of transmission. Let me break this down and make it super simple.

In Minnesota, that individual who was COVID and may have passed it on to their cat, that cat should be isolated 14 days after they had contact with that person. So actually, the quarantine period for pets may actually extend longer than when it is for humans after they've sort of been cured and cleared from infection.

JOHN WHYTE: But within our households, if there is no known cases, we're not going to treat our pets differently right now. Is that correct?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Yeah, that's so important to sort of double underline and highlight. We can continue to snuggle our pets, we can continue to rely on our pets for emotional support. You definitely don't need to treat your pets any differently.

JOHN WHYTE: That's good. We should double underline it as well. But let's talk a little today about the broader definition of animals and how they're helping us with the battle against coronavirus. And there's been some interesting news articles about llamas and what their role might be relating to coronavirus. Tell us what's happening with the llamas.

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: You're exactly right, John. Llamas have been propelled into the news recently, and it's not because they've got amazing personalities and soft wool, but they're in the news for a much more fascinating feature. And that is they have an incredible immune system. And the word that everybody is using and throwing around is the term, nanobodies.

And those who aren't really familiar with antibodies, most diagrams depict them as a wishbone. You've got two heavy chains and two light chains. That's a normal antibody. Well, camelids, so those in the llama family like camels, vicunas, and guanacos, they make a single domain antibody. And that's just the heavy chains.

From that single domain, they can make something called the nanobody. And this nanobody, what they've shown in research, is that it can bind tightly to the novel coronavirus and prevent it from entering the cell. Now, keep in mind, this is research they built on using the nanobody that attaches to SARS and MERS. So they simply said, let's build on that research that we did in the early 2000s and develop a therapy, potentially, against the novel coronavirus.

JOHN WHYTE: What about ferrets? There's been some encouraging news about the role of ferrets.

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Listen, if you've ever held a ferret, you know they're fascinating, right? They're social. They're a little mischievous. So they're a lot like humans in that respect. But they're also a little like humans like us in other respects too. And that is they serve as a great model to understand respiratory illness. They tend to get sick. They sneeze. They're social.

And understanding that is super important, because what they found out for ferrets-- one particular feature is that older ferrets seem to be affected harder and more harshly. There's more morbidity with the novel coronavirus than younger ferrets, which really mimics the disparity that we see with humans and their increased mortality with the novel coronavirus. So ferrets are really unique in understanding not only just influenza, but also in this case, COVID-19.

JOHN WHYTE: Monkeys have helped us understand the transmission and pathophysiology of HIV. What about their role in COVID-19?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Listen, you're exactly right. Monkeys will always sort of, to me, be like the gatekeepers to understanding antiviral therapies, vaccines, respiratory transmission. And the reason why they are very helpful in helping us understand how to fight novel coronavirus is understanding vaccine safety, and also understanding immune protection. So particularly when you look at something identical like the rhesus macaque, their ACE type 2 receptor is 100% identical to the human receptor as well.

And showing that those vaccines in those regions macaques were safe, but they also really highlighted something else-- another known phenomenon-- and that is disease enhancement, where they develop a vaccine and let's say it doesn't go well. And the vaccine actually enhances the ability for the disease or the virus to get into the cell. They have not seen any evidence of disease enhancement with these vaccine trials that they're doing, particularly in monkeys.

So for me, their understanding and helping us fight this disease comes down to safety, vaccines, antiviral therapy, and then lastly, comorbidities-- understanding that in novel coronavirus in humans, it affects people with comorbidities like asthma, diabetes, being overweight much more harshly. And if that can be simulated in monkeys as well, that can help us understand why this disease is so pernicious among those with comorbidities.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, have you had a hamster as a pet?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: I have not, but I just got one. Her name is Quarantina Sunburst. And Quarantina is absolutely amazing. She's incredible. But I feel like you're asking about hamsters because they're helping us learn more about the coronavirus.

JOHN WHYTE: Tell us why did you decide to get a hamster. Last time we saw you, you had a god, now you have a hamster.

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Well, the reality is, I just felt like little pets-- pocket pets-- they need love too. There's beautiful stories coming out of the quarantine period of people adopting dogs and cats and just-- it's incredible. The shelters are, like-- some shelters, I should say, not all-- are virtually empty, because people just have tremendous outpouring of love and affection for pets. But what about hamsters? So I now have one, and it's beautiful. She's beautiful.

JOHN WHYTE: And what's the role of hamsters in coronavirus?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Listen, if someone who's watching us talk right now is wearing a mask, it could be a large part to research that has been discovered in hamsters. Essentially, what they did, John, is they just took two groups of hamsters. One was challenged with the novel coronavirus, and the other group was completely healthy. They put masks over the cages of the infected hamsters, and the risk of transmission dropped 60%-- or just above 15%.

Then they took the masks and only put them over the healthy hamsters-- meaning these hamsters did not have coronavirus, and the risk of transmission dropped to just above 35%. So the reality is, hamsters actually help us underscore the benefits and the utility of universal masking. And if both parties have maintained a mask, you can drop the role of transmission of this horrible disease.

JOHN WHYTE: And I'm sure viewers are trying to figure out, what is this image of the animal next to your ear. What's behind you?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: A good, old-fashioned lion, man. I mean, just how regal they are, even seeing their skeleton, even seeing just a radiograph of a lion skeleton-- even that's impressive. But for me, it's a callback to all of the feline patients that I see on a daily basis, and understanding that OK, no, they're not quite the same as big cats, but just understanding that there is that human-animal bond where planetary tribes, so to speak, we're all on this together. And we're all sort of interconnected, even from the felines that you hold in your hands to this big lion behind me. We're all just one big happy family.

JOHN WHYTE: And cats are more susceptible to getting coronavirus, is that right?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Very well said. Yes. Cats, uh, ferrets, and the Syrian hamster-- um, you know, any animal or species that has a very similar, um, ACE 2-- angiotensin converting enzyme type 2-- receptor, we know from the previous SARS research that has been done and previous MERS research that has been done that cats show an increased susceptibility. You're exactly right.

And then, of course, the tigers in the zoo that came down with COVID-19-- I think that really shocked the conscious of a lot of people who didn't understand just how virulent or just the infectivity of this particular virus.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, you're a veterinary surgeon. And on the human side, we're seeing that surgeries are starting to take place again. What's happening in surgeries for our pets? Is that starting to occur more frequently? Can people bring their pet in and have that surgery that might have been delayed?

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Very good question. Listen, the elective surgery or decreasing the amount of elective surgery mirrored the human side for a variety of reasons-- decreased use of PPEs, resources, and all of that. And now it depends on the hospital. Simply make sure if your pet needs an elective surgery-- and when I say elective, I mean some of these surgeries, if they're delayed long enough, could really cause major illness and decrease quality of life in certain pets. Although they're not life threatening, they may really decrease quality of life.

So I use the term, elective, a little bit loosely here. If your pet is scheduled for an elective surgery, certainly call your veterinary hospital and ask-- are you still doing elective surgeries? Because for me, we've just started to encroach upon elective surgeries. But fortunately, I've been able to do a lot of emergency surgeries for a lot of pets to save a lot of lives throughout the quarantine. So emergency surgeries, yes. Elective surgeries, we're still building up to them.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, you've been spending a lot of time on multimedia, educating folks about the role of pets as well as how to protect pets during this time. Just share with our viewers what you've been up to lately.

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: Lately, it's been a really enriching and uplifting journey-- to see those who have a true appetite to understand what's happening in the world, particularly with coronavirus-- accurate, updated information. You and I have had the pleasure of talking also on a variety of broadcast outlets like Fox and KTLA-- also, there's a digital platform Vet Candy-- that we've been really trying to sort of disseminate accurate, up-to-date information. And of course, regular, your personal socials-- @Dr.CourtneyDVM on Instagram, Twitter, just trying to give accurate, updated information to people who really want to know, hey, my family members-- listen, they're a different species, but they're still my family members. I want to make sure that they are up to date on the best information.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Courtney Campbell, I want to thank you for coming back. And hopefully you'll come back again.

COURTNEY CAMPBELL: John, it's been a pleasure, man. We've got to do a round three.

JOHN WHYTE: All right. And thank you for watching "Coronavirus in Context."