Guest post by Ingrid R. Niesman, MS PhD
As COVID-19 continues to spread globally among humans, veterinarians are starting to track COVID in animals as well.
Epidemiologists are our front-line defense
Two new epidemiological studies are designed to investigate the potential for COVID-19 infection in companion animals.
Dr. Jonathan Runstadler, DVM, Ph.D., a lead investigator at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, tracks animal infections, including COVID-19.
“Our lab is seeking an understanding of how hosts and infectious agents interact at genetic levels. Looking at coronavirus spread to animals is a natural extension of our work,” explains postdoctoral researcher Kate Sawatzki. “With the novel SARS-CoV-2, there is a real risk for species spillover in the environment.”
What she means by that is that this virus may exist in the environment and infect species other than humans.
How we can all help with these studies so humans and animals can benefit
The CoVERS project, short for Coronavirus Epidemiological Research and Surveillance, is an NIH-funded study designed to rapidly collect COVID-19 data from multiple species in different environments. Since the logistics and personnel required for any large study to be statistically valid are daunting, Dr. Runstadler is turning to pet parents, veterinarians and farmers to collect specimens for him.
Amy Karls, DVM, M.S., a veterinarian and Tufts alumni living in Massachusetts, jumped at the chance to participate when she learned about the study and enrolled two of her cats. After signing an online waiver and consent form, she was mailed enough swabs to test each of her two cats every other day for two weeks. Testing requires a small nasal wipe and an oral sample. This sounds more difficult than it is. “The nasal swab can be external and the oral sample can be saliva,” said Dr. Karls. “You can swab your catnip toy or doggie tennis ball if needed.”
Although her household is COVID-19 free, other participants in the study have come from positive households. To date, 362 domestic animals have been tested. All have been negative by diagnostic PCR-based tests. “So far the risk of transmission from humans to animals seems low,” concludes Dr. Sawatzki.
Their next push will be wildlife and agriculturally important animals.
East Coast volunteers wanted
As Dr. Runstadler explained to me, the amount of manpower and the variety of sampling locations requires large-scale mobilizations. They are looking for residents of the greater New England region, (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and Vermont) with at least one mammalian species living in the household to volunteer their pets for the study. Ideally, they are looking for households with more than one cat or households with several species of companion animals. Visit https://sites.tufts.edu/covers/ for more information and to enter your household in the study.
If you are a client of the Henry & Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals, the Hospital for Large Animals, Tufts at Tech community veterinary clinic, the Luke and Lily Lerner Spay/Neuter Clinic, or Tufts Veterinary Field Service, you can enroll your pet during a planned veterinary visit.
West Coast volunteers wanted
On the West Coast, the CAPS project (COVID-19 and Pets Study) is taking a more direct approach towards understanding the risks of transmission between COVID-19 positive humans and the pets living in their homes.
“We are looking for links between humans and pets that can affect the risk of transmission,” says Kathryn Kuehl, DVM, one of the study investigators. For their study, which began in early May, they recruited households with a positive COVID-19 patient and either a cat, dog, ferret or hamster. (Full disclosure, they have yet to enroll a ferret or hamster, so far, it’s been cats and dogs only.)
“We need to understand how normal interactions, such as having your cat drink from your water glass, may increase risks of infections,“ explains Dr. Kuehl. Without studies of human-pet environmental behaviors, we might easily miss routes of transmission.
For this study, participants fill out an extensive survey, followed by swabbing, PCR-based diagnostic testing, blood sampling for later antibody testing and fecal collections. Although they are mainly recruiting from the greater Seattle area, Dr. Kuehl hopes to expand the study to outlying regions of Washington State. “We are really hoping to increase our recruitment since we rely heavily on the public,” she requests. Visit https://deohs.washington.edu/cohr/covid-19-and-pets-study-caps for more information on how to enroll in the study.
Making a difference
For those of you who have been looking for ways to help in the fight against COVID-19, volunteering your pets for environmental surveillance studies is a way to contribute at no risk to your pet. Since so much is still unknown about this virus, all collected data collected may be critical in the long run. This is one way you can make a difference.
Ingrid R. Niesman MS PhD is the Director of the SDSU Electron Microscope Imaging Facility at San Diego State University. She graduated from Utah State University and received her MS from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. After 30 years of technical electron microscopy, cell biology, neuroscience and infectious disease research, Dr. Niesman completed her PhD in the UK at the University of Sunderland. Her work experience includes time at LSU Medical School, Washington University, UAMS in Little Rock, UCSD, TSRI and a postdoctoral year at CALIBR in La Jolla, CA. She has worked for at least two National Academy of Science members and is credited with over 50 publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org