The Coming Petdemic - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Coming Petdemic

The Coming Petdemic

By Hillary Greene


Because our furry friends got us through this year. But what if they're the source of tomorrow's infections?

By Hillary Greene

In this country of 330 million people, there are 160 million cats and dogs spread across 67 percent of households. Since 1960, 75 percent of human diseases have come from animals, and since 1990, the number of such disease outbreaks has tripled to about 300 per year. The past decade “has witnessed unprecedented pandemic explosions,” according to a study by Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. David Morens of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. What if the next pandemic is also a “petdemic,” when our animal companions infect us and vice versa? 

We know that humans with COVID-19 can infect dogs and cats (even tigers). The reverse — cats and dogs infecting us — does not appear to occur, though it does happen in mink, which are often farmed for their pelts and thus interact with humans. Minks act as reservoirs of the coronavirus, allowing it to spread back to humans and possibly to wildlife. After the virus jumped from humans to minks in some places, it apparently mutated, and the altered virus has found its way back to humans. The fear is that existing vaccines may not protect us fully from new variations. In Denmark, the government is now slaughtering the country’s entire farmed mink population of 17 million and temporarily locked down 250,000 people near those farms. 

A petdemic could occur in the future, says Jonathan Runstadler, a professor specializing in infectious disease at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “What we can do now is to take stock of our varied interactions with animals, including our pets, appreciate how important those interactions are to people’s well-being, and prioritize understanding how viruses and microbes can spill over and spill back between humans and the animals we care for, causing disease.” 

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Palestinian artist Kholoud al-Desouki pets a cat during lockdown at home in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip amid strict restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What if tomorrow we learned that our animal companions, our pets, might be part of a pandemic threat? It is tempting to believe we would not respond by killing Fluffy and Fido, but history suggests otherwise. During a 1916 polio outbreak in New York City, 80,000 cats and dogs were put down in a little over three weeks, despite public statements by health authorities that those animals would not spread the disease. How much has really changed since then? 

Perceived threats, even when unfounded, can be dangerous. What will happen to our animal companions while we are trying to figure out the risk a species may pose? And if our worst fears are realized, will our furry friends be banished from the bed, turned onto the street or worse?   

How would pet guardians react if their animals might be infectious? Likely responses would range from isolating pets to abandonment to denying the problem exists. A goal of petdemic preparedness is to expand options to keep ourselves and our animals safe, and to provide a framework for thinking through what is now, to most, unthinkable.

The first hurdle is determining when a particular animal is infected. As for testing, consider the problem of using a nasal swab when the patient is unwilling and has teeth and claws. Some have championed an inexpensive, rapid saliva test for humans that could then be applied to animals. But the second hurdle is cost. Since few of us have pet insurance, testing will increase the financial burden of owning a pet.

With a positive result, we’d have to make tough choices based on the practicality of isolating an infected animal, the perceived danger of keeping an infected pet at home and any need for veterinary care. Unfortunately, our species has a disturbing tendency to “surrender” animals to shelters when it is inconvenient to keep them. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 6.5 million cats and dogs enter the shelter system each year — and that’s without a petdemic.

Beyond testing, we need to extend what we know about controlling highly infectious animal disease within shelters to deal with the massive scale of a petdemic and new dangers to human health. We also need to assess and enhance the ability of pet owners to cope with a petdemic at home (e.g., redesign crates to reduce disease transmission) and plan for the creation of temporary isolation facilities away from home. Further, we should determine how the patchwork of state and local governments, animal welfare organizations and industry participants could coordinate efforts. Such planning could be funded in part by a small fee on broadly required pet vaccinations such as rabies. This approach uses an existing mechanism and targets the primary beneficiaries of the planning. 

This is not entirely new territory. America has set aside resources to cope with disease threats to animals, although mainly for those we eat. The National Veterinary Stockpile is a prime example, yet it is funded only to the tune of $4 million a year. By contrast, its counterpart, the Strategic National Stockpile, received $575 million “to serve a similar role for human health,” according to a bipartisan report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense (now the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense) from 2017.

In December that year, two years before COVID-19 first hit, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman chaired the blue ribbon animal agriculture defense task force. Testifying before Congress, he lamented that we “lack sufficient biosurveillance efforts to detect spillover events and have not developed guidance for localities on how to manage such an event if it were to happen.” Moreover, he argued, “options beyond culling, particularly those that consider animal welfare, must become core tenets of our response.” He implored the Senate to pay attention to the dangers posed not only by farm animals but also wildlife or companion animals. “Pets are embedded into our lives and culture, but associated zoonotic disease risk is not well considered.”

We didn’t listen then, but perhaps we will now. Our animal companions give us a rare gift: reminding us to live in the present. Our obligation is to plan for a future petdemic, even as we pray it never comes.    

Hillary Greene is a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

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