Investigating COVID-19 in companion animals
An appeal by the Centre for Virus Research to veterinary surgeons
During the current COVID-19 pandemic, naturally occurring SARS-CoV-2 infections have been reported in domestic cats, non-domestic cats, dogs [summarised in 1] and farmed mink. In vivo experiments have shown that some animals including cats, ferrets and hamsters are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection [2,3], whereas other species such as ducks, chickens and pigs seem to be non-susceptible, at least under reported experimental conditions . The factors that govern why one species is susceptible to the COVID-19 virus while others are more resistant are currently unknown but will likely reveal more about how the virus spreads and causes disease. However, it is important to emphasise that at present, there is no evidence that cats, dogs or other domestic animals play any role in the epidemiology of human infections with SARS-CoV-2 . Furthermore, the significance of SARS-CoV-2 as a feline or canine pathogen is unknown as cats and dogs with reported infections have apparently recovered and there has been no evidence of transmission occurring between cats or dogs in the field.
The MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) has dedicated its resources to the research response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this effort, we intend to investigate natural SARS-CoV-2 infections in domestic cats and dogs. If we identify animals that are naturally infected with SARS-CoV-2, we will analyse the full genome sequences of the viruses we isolate, which will allow us to determine whether viruses found in cats and dogs represent spill-over infections from humans. We are seeking the assistance of our colleagues in practice to provide respiratory samples and/or faecal swabs where they have a clinical suspicion of SARS-CoV-2 infection. These may be companion animals with known recent exposure to SARS-CoV-2, showing respiratory clinical signs either with or without gastrointestinal involvement. Importantly, common pathogens such as calicivirus, herpesvirus, feline coronavirus and toxoplasma should first be excluded. To facilitate this process, we are working in partnership with the Veterinary Diagnostic Service (VDS) at the University of Glasgow, which specialises in the detection of respiratory pathogens from cat and dog samples from across the UK. Samples submitted to VDS will be forwarded to us at the CVR, where they will be screened for the presence of the virus. We would be grateful if clinicians could identify on their submission forms those samples which fulfil these criteria. There is no charge for SARS-CoV-2 testing at this time, however any tests requested for other pathogens will be charged at the normal price. We will report any virus-positive case to the APHA for further testing . We will also relay the results of any samples tested, via the diagnostic service, to the submitting veterinary surgeon. It is important to note, the UK testing capacity for human cases will not be adversely affected by this study.
- Shi et al., Science 1126/science.abb7015 (2020).
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the regulations surrounding SARS-CoV-2 testing in animals in the UK?
The APHA have produced a guidance document “SARS-CoV-2 in Animals – Case Definition, Testing and International Reporting Obligations” which can be accessed here. Our study is a clinical research project, as detailed in the background section of this document (note 11). Our study has ethical approval from the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine Ethics Committee. The test which will be used is a qRT-PCR assay, as recommended by the APHA.
How can practising veterinary surgeons contribute to this study?
We are providing practising veterinary surgeons the opportunity to submit feline and canine respiratory samples to support research into COVID-19 at the Centre for Virus Research. Selected samples will be tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2. Our findings will provide much-needed information on the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on companion animal health and whether domestic animals play an as yet unappreciated role in human COVID-19 epidemiology.
What type of samples may I submit for this study and where do I send them?
We are accepting oropharyngeal swabs, preferably in virus transport medium, from cases with a clinical suspicion of SARS-CoV-2 infection. We are also accepting faecal swabs from these cases. Samples should be sent to VDS at the University of Glasgow, accompanied by the usual feline and canine infectious disease diagnostic submission forms, which can be found here. Please complete the appropriate form, including the words ‘CVR COVID-19 STUDY’ on the form. Please also provide relevant history details on the form as to why SARS-CoV-2 infection is suspected. Note, we can only accept companion animal diagnostic samples and those submitted by registered veterinary surgeons. We cannot accept human samples.
What other pathogens should be excluded before SARS-CoV-2 is considered?
For all suspected cases in cats with any one of the three presentations:
- acute fever and/or
- acute respiratory signs (cough or tachypnoea+/- dyspnoea) and/or
- acute gastrointestinal signs (vomiting or, less likely, small intestinal diarrhoea)
then before SARS-CoV-2 qPCR is considered, we recommend testing for FCoV (faecal sample) and Toxoplasma (serology) as a minimum. In addition, for cats with respiratory signs (+/- fever), we recommend testing for FCV/FHV (oropharyngeal swab in viral transport medium) and Bordetella (charcoal (Amies) swab). It is also important to exclude ‘feline asthma’ by taking a careful clinical history. Thoracic radiographs are also very useful. For cats with GI signs we recommend faecal bacteriology (fresh faeces). If you are sending a faecal sample to VDS for these tests, please also submit a rectal swab which is required for SARS-CoV-2 testing.
For dogs with any one of the three presentations:
- fever and /or
- respiratory signs (cough or tachypnoea+/- dyspnoea) and/or
- gastrointestinal signs (vomiting or, less likely, small intestinal diarrhoea)
then we recommend first testing for canine distemper virus (serology). For dogs with respiratory signs we would advise respiratory virus isolation (oropharyngeal swab in virus transport medium) to detect canine parainfluenza (CPi), canine adenovirus (CAV) and canine herpesvirus (CHV). Bordetella testing should also have been performed from a deep oropharyngeal swab (charcoal (Amies) swab). For dogs with GI signs then, in addition, faecal bacteriology and canine parvovirus testing should be performed on fresh faeces. If you are sending a faecal sample to VDS for these tests, please also submit a rectal swab which is required for SARS-CoV-2 testing.
Can VDS undertake testing for these other pathogens on the submitted samples?
Yes, veterinary surgeons may request these and other diagnostic tests as per normal; please consult the submission form and tick the appropriate boxes on the form. These tests will be undertaken at the usual diagnostic time-scale and will be charged at the normal rate.
How much does SARS-CoV-2 testing cost?
Samples will be tested for SARS-CoV-2 as part of a research study and will be processed free of charge.
When can I expect to receive a result?
Results will be reported as soon as they are available. In the event of a positive result, the submitting veterinary surgeons assumes certain responsibilities and should consult the relevant APHA notes. VDS will make positive samples available to APHA Weybridge laboratory for secondary testing. Submitting veterinary surgeons may also be requested to take additional samples from the animal and submit these to Weybridge for secondary testing.
How does this work impact human testing for COVID-19?
We will be analysing a relatively small number of animal samples in a research laboratory environment. We are using different methodology than that offered by the NHS and our study in no way impacts on the NHS human testing capacity.
Where can I get current information on the role of animals in COVID-19 transmission?
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) is the veterinary equivalent to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and is the world authority on animal health. This organisation provides the most up-to-date information on the role of SARS-CoV-2 in animals, which can be found here.
Any other questions?
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