As the COVID-19 death toll has skyrocketed and hunger for cures or salves has intensified, people who work with pets have noticed that popular interest in vaccines meant to treat a different strain of coronavirus in dogs has surged.
Perhaps it was inevitable that these drugs—long produced by companies like Durvet and Merck—would enjoy a moment in the spotlight. We are living through a paralyzing disease scare that has confined millions of Americans to their homes, an unprecedented disruption to national life that’s left many to stew in anxiety and fear. Many are home with their dogs and worry that they, too, may be prone to the pandemic.
Most people likely want these vaccines to protect their pets from any possible risk during the current crisis—either unaware that these vaccines don’t target the strain of coronavirus behind COVID-19, or aware but hopeful that it will provide unexpected cross-protection. But a few vets and other animal-proximal professionals tell The Daily Beast that they worry some people, driven by misinformation, misunderstandings, and the scramble for even uncertain or unproven cures, may consider taking these dog drugs themselves.
It is not clear how steep the growth of interest in or purchase of canine coronavirus vaccines has been in recent weeks—whether it has been widespread or concentrated in a few communities. But Michelle Gerhard Jasny, a small private practice vet in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, told The Daily Beast that there have been conversations within the veterinary community about how the public may perceive or use these vaccines.
The canine coronavirus vaccine only protects against CCoV, a strain of coronavirus that gives dogs mild diarrhea. Because the illness clears up on its own within days, many experts believe only particularly sickly or vulnerable dogs need the vaccination. When it comes to hopes for potential cross-strain protection, the vaccine doesn’t even work against other forms of coronavirus that have long affected dogs, like CRCoV, which gives most a cough and a runny nose, much less against the new and unique SARS-CoV-2 strain behind the current pandemic.
So buying doses to protect dogs from this pandemic is wasteful at best, and it has never been tested for safety in humans, Jay Margolis of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association told The Daily Beast.
“Simply,” Margolis says, “it should not be used” for anything related to SARS-CoV-2. Major veterinary organizations like VCA Hospitals, a network of over 1,000 animal hospitals, and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, an umbrella group representing over 100 smaller organizations and over 200,000 vets, have felt the need to make similar statements this month.
Rising interest in these vaccines this month likely stems in part from coverage of two dogs in Hong Kong who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, leading local experts to conclude that the disease can jump from humans to canines. Getting an infection doesn’t mean an animal will develop a disease or be infectious, though. Neither dog developed COVID-19 symptoms, although one died soon after making the news—likely of unrelated health issues. While the CDC would like to see more studies on the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on animals, for now they and other major health bodies believe that SARS-CoV-2 likely does not pose a health threat to dogs, and that infected dogs likely do not pose a transmission risk to humans.
The CDC still notes that people with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 “should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just like you would around other people.” But that’s more about limiting the spread of virus by contaminating an animal’s fur when touching it.
At least two entities, Idexx Laboratories and the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have developed animal tests for SARS-CoV-2. But Idexx says its research supports recommendations against testing pets. Both labs have said they’ll only do testing if and when officials tell them to do so.
Even so, Rania Gollakner, a small animal medicine expert at the University of Florida’s One Health Center of Excellence, told The Daily Beast that veterinary groups have been fielding plenty of comments and questions about the risks of this pandemic for dogs in recent weeks. On Friday, her team will release the results of a survey, conducted with the Center for Public Issues Education, which suggests that over a quarter of Americans are “concerned about pets contracting COVID-19,” she says.
Canine coronavirus vaccines are not the most worrying things people are looking to in desperate bids for protection. That honor likely goes to bleach, which some advocate drinking to kill the virus—and which can lead to serious injuries or even death. Hype over chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that some early studies suggest could help to protect against COVID-19—and which President Trump has preemptively called a “game changer”—also recently led one man to take a non-medical form of the drug used to kill parasites in fish tanks, a dose that killed him.
Still, Sharon Albright of the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation stressed that the dog vaccines pose some risks. Some dogs have allergic reactions to them. And we don’t know what they may do in humans. “They could go into anaphylactic shock,” she says.
“My best advice,” added veterinarian Ernie Ward, “is to ask a veterinarian before administering any medicine or supplement to a pet.” And if you’re a human, call a doctor before trying to shoot up puppy meds.