Genetic testing on sick chickens show that some have the COVID-19 virus, making them at risk for the virus to be transferred to domesticated pets, according to research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. These findings show how intense testing and monitoring are needed to ensure that domesticated animals and people are not exposed to disease agents.
The research is described in a November 2017 editorial, published in the Journal of Animal Health, and its results appear in the June 2018 issue of the journal.
COVID-19, also known as lateral prion virus, is a rare (at least 22 cases recorded globally since 2014) and deadly virus that has infected red meat and dairy animals worldwide, according to Hopkins School of Public Health officials. The researchers and veterinarians recommend that COVID-19 tests be used to rule out disease in farm animals and encourage people infected with COVID-19 to contact their local veterinarian or zoonotic disease surveillance center. The move aims to limit the disease from entering the domestic environment and causing wider infection and spread to people.
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As a result of the first case of disease transmission from domesticated animals to domestic pets, researchers analyzed DNA from dead chickens that were found at the same location. They found “large numbers” of the virus in chickens from across the world in all types of locations, showing it can carry from farm to farm. This type of global transmission never happened before with COVID-19.
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COVID-19 is closely related to prions, a family of fungal agents that cause twisted-shaped damage to the brain. Prions can infect humans and animals through contaminated meat, often by pathogen contamination through direct contact or by transmission through contaminated food or other infection-causing agents such as viruses or bacteria. Prolonged exposure to COVID-19 and prions, including through direct food contact, can result in seizures, severe mental disability, and death.
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If people contract COVID-19 from their pet, most of the symptoms are similar to what happens to people infected with COVID-19, according to Hopkins School of Public Health officials. Fortunately, the symptoms of domestic dogs and cats usually show up within 72 hours of exposure to COVID-19. Rare cases of disease transmission by domestic pets have been observed.
“We already have extremely rigorous food safety programs, but now we have an animal protection program that will mean more inspection of goods for contamination,” said one of the study authors, Kaitlin Tanner, an animal epidemiologist and microbiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The studies that point to COVID-19 in poultry are encouraging, and our goal now is to see if the coronavirus can be transmitted to domestic cats. So far, it hasn’t been seen, but if the findings are confirmed, it would be a significant contribution to our knowledge of animal diseases.”