On Feb. 6, a team led by pathobiology professor Ying Fang, a virologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, diagnosed a pet dog in Chicago with infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. This is the first dog in Illinois to test positive for the coronavirus. Fang spoke with News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about this development and what it means for pets in the pandemic.
Do we know how this dog got infected?
Veterinarians believe the source of infection was a SARS-CoV-2-infected pet-sitter who had cared for the dog at the time of infection while the dog’s owners were away.
What symptoms did the dog have that prompted the test?
The dog developed respiratory symptoms after exposure to the pet-sitter. When the dog failed to get better after a few weeks, the treating veterinarian, Dr. Drew Sullivan, the director of the Medical District Veterinary Clinic in Chicago, sent samples to my laboratory for testing. This clinic is owned and operated by the U. of I. College of Veterinary Medicine.
What’s the protocol for testing the SARS-CoV-2 virus in pets?
We conducted the real-time RT-PCR test. After my team’s initial test, the sample was sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. This lab is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The Iowa lab confirmed the test result.
Can infected dogs infect humans?
Health officials have not seen a case of a dog infecting a human. In the case of this dog, even though it had respiratory symptoms for some time, its owners tested negative for COVID-19.
You are the principal investigator of a research project funded by the National Institutes of Health to develop better methods for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in companion animals. Why is this needed?
I’m leading a team of investigators who will develop novel assays and an animal model system for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics, pathogenesis and epidemiology studies in captive and companion animals. Our team includes several experts from the U. of I., including pathobiology professor Raymond Rowland, Dr. Leyi Wang of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, and pathobiology professor Dr. Gay Miller; along with Dr. Diego Diel, professor Gary Whittaker and Dr. Andrew Miller of Cornell University.
What prompted this research?
Recent studies by us and others have found that felids, including domestic cats, tigers and lions are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection. These findings cause great concern about the potential for human-to-animal and animal-to-human transmission, along with the virus mutations that appear as the virus goes back and forth between species.
What’s next for your team?
One of our goals is to design and prepare better, faster ways of detecting and tracking coronavirus in animals. We also hope to develop a feline animal model that will offer insight into how the disease behaves in cats. Our data will be incorporated into models for understanding the risk of animal infection for veterinarians, other animal care professionals and the general public.