On Wednesday, Spanish officials euthanized the pet dog of Teresa Romero, the Madrid nursing assistant who has tested positive for Ebola.
It has led many to ask if this drastic action was really necessary and if we should be concerned that our pets are potential points of transmission of this deadly disease.
In all honesty, there’s not much data to go on at this point to know for certain if dogs can pass on the disease, except for a single 2005 study published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, which tested canines in Gabon during an Ebola outbreak in 2001.
Examining the blood of over 150 dogs that fed on carcasses of infected dead wildlife and lived in close quarters with infected humans, the researchers discovered that the pets were indeed vulnerable to the Ebola virus. Nearly 32% of them were infected with Ebola – yet none of them were found to suffer from any of its symptoms.
"These findings strongly suggest that dogs can be infected by Ebola virus, and that some pet dogs living in affected areas were infected during the 2001-2002 human Ebola virus outbreak," authors wrote.
"Given the frequency of contact between humans and domestic dogs, canine Ebola infection must be considered as a potential risk factor for human infection and virus spread. Human infection could occur through licking, biting or grooming. "
So far there is no evidence in the current outbreak of dogs being infected or pets transmitting Ebola.
Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that while the nearly decade-old study is not definitive, it is better to err on the side of caution, since Ebola is known to cross between species – as has been seen in West Africa time and time again.
“We do know in rural areas of Africa, that Ebola can infect mammals. In fact, that’s how it spreads, from probably bats to animals living in the forest, people hunting the animals,” Frieden explained.
“When they hunt the animals and prepare them for serving, they may become infected from the blood that is involved.”
At this point, scientists are still left scratching their heads as to where exactly Ebola originates. What animal species is its natural host?
Recent findings have pointed to fruit bats that call the deep rainforests of West Africa home. For some locals, these flying mammals are considered a delicacy. Other studies have shown primates are also susceptible to the deadly virus, while there are hints that pigs and birds can be carriers, too.
John Blackwell, President of the British Veterinary Association told Time this week that because there are so many unknowns regarding Ebola in dogs, it just makes sense to be extra cautious and proactive when possible.
So did the Spanish authorities do what was needed to protect the general public in putting the poor dog down? Should quarantine have been considered?
According to the science, we know that humans cannot transmit Ebola while being asymptomatic. Is this the same case in dogs? We just don’t know for sure at this point.
With so many unknowns, from a public welfare point of view it is understandable why officials chose to euthanize the canine. However, with so much panic and fear surrounding this virus and its spread in recent weeks, it may have been better for public authorities to have been more forthcoming about the possibilities of alternate routes of transmission.