Can Pets Get The Coronavirus? 1st Dog In U.S. To Test Positive Has Died : Short Wave Buddy, an adult German shepherd from Staten Island, was the first dog in the U.S. to test positive for the coronavirus. His death reveals just how little we know about COVID-19 and pets. Natasha Daly reported on Buddy's story exclusively for National Geographic.
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1st U.S. Dog With COVID-19 Has Died, And There's A Lot We Still Don't Know

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1st U.S. Dog With COVID-19 Has Died, And There's A Lot We Still Don't Know

1st U.S. Dog With COVID-19 Has Died, And There's A Lot We Still Don't Know

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MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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SOFIA: ...From NPR.

EMILY KWONG, HOST:

It was mid-April when Buddy's family first started to notice that something wasn't right.

NATASHA DALY: Buddy started breathing really heavily, and he had mucus in his nose. And this was the first thing his family noticed that - you know, the first sign that he was not himself.

KWONG: That's Natasha Daly, a wildlife reporter with National Geographic. Buddy was a German shepherd who, Natasha says, by his family's account, was a very, very good boy.

DALY: He loved running through sprinklers. He just loved, like, running and diving right into the lake. His family loved to dress him up for Halloween. I saw some photos of him in a bunny costume. And, you know, he's just - it looks like he's just grinning at the camera.

KWONG: So when Buddy started getting sick this spring, just before his seventh birthday, his family, Robert and Allison Mahoney and their daughter, Julianna, well, they were worried.

DALY: I mean, he'd been completely healthy. And then all of a sudden, in the spring, he started, you know, struggling to breathe. And the first thing his family thought was he has the virus.

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KWONG: Meaning the coronavirus. And the reason they thought that - they had also been sick.

DALY: So specifically, Robert Mahoney, the husband, had tested positive. Allison Mahoney, Robert's wife, had not been tested, but she was showing symptoms, so she assumed she had it, too.

KWONG: The daughter, Julianna, who's 13, tested negative. But when it came to getting Buddy a test, that was a lot harder. Buddy's regular vet wasn't seeing patients.

DALY: The vet significantly said, there's no way he has it. Like, just, you know, there's no way. And he prescribed them antibiotics over the phone.

KWONG: Another vet gave Buddy an ultrasound and X-rays but also didn't think Buddy could have the coronavirus.

DALY: Remember; no dog had yet tested positive in the U.S.

KWONG: And many vets didn't have the tests for animals anyway. But one day, Robert Mahoney's sister saw a Facebook post about a vet where they lived on Staten Island that had just gotten some test kits.

DALY: Robert was like, great. Like, let me call him right now, get down there, make an appointment. And so he was able to make an appointment for 10 p.m. on a Friday. So it was a very strange time, but it was - the clinic was really busy, and so it was the first slot they had available.

KWONG: That was Friday, May 15, a full month after he started showing symptoms. A few days later, Buddy finally got a test that revealed he was positive. This was a huge deal. Buddy was the first dog in the U.S. known to have the virus. And the USDA announced the news in a press release on June 2. Buddy wasn't named in that press release. The government only identified his breed. In fact, we only know the details of his story because of Natasha's reporting. The USDA said in June that, quote, "the dog is expected to make a full recovery."

But Buddy didn't get better. He got more and more sick in June. It all came to a head one weekend in July, and a warning that the details coming up are pretty tough to hear.

DALY: So Allison came downstairs the morning of July 11 and found Buddy in the kitchen in a pool of mottled blood. He was throwing up blood. It was coming from his nose. I mean, it was just horrific and devastating for the family. And, you know, at that point, they brought him into the vet, and the decision was made to euthanize him, which was obviously really, really difficult on top of 2 1/2 months of, you know, stress and confusion that the family had already been through.

KWONG: Thirteen dogs and 11 cats have tested positive in the U.S. for COVID-19, according to public USDA records. And while those numbers sound small, they raise big questions about how the virus can affect people and their pets. Today's episode, Natasha Daly on why some of those questions are still so hard to answer.

DALY: Allison Mahoney said to me that, you know, you'd tell someone that your dog tested positive for COVID, and they'd look at you like you had 10 heads.

KWONG: Yeah.

DALY: You know, there's no rubric for navigating COVID in your pet.

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KWONG: I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: OK, first off, the current CDC guidance is that there is no evidence that pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans, and that's partially why testing for animals isn't more widespread. We do need to say, too, that tests for animals are different than the tests used to detect the virus in humans.

DALY: All animal tests are processed in different labs, are processed in veterinary labs. Not - there's no overlap between human testing and animal testing. So while some of the mechanics of the tests may be the same, it's not at all taking resources away from humans.

KWONG: But because a COVID-positive animal isn't seen as a danger to humans, there's been very little scientific study of how the virus can affect those pets or even how it can interact with other diseases our pets may have. That's where we're going to pick up Buddy's story with Natasha Daly.

DALY: Yeah, so new bloodwork was taken on July 10, the day before Buddy died. And it was on July 11 when the Mahoneys brought Buddy in to essentially be euthanized that they found the results of that bloodwork. And the bloodwork indicated that he very, very likely had lymphoma.

KWONG: Which is a kind of cancer, right?

DALY: Yes, lymphoma is a type of cancer. So I asked a couple of veterinarians who were not involved in Buddy's case at all to review his full records. And they said that, yes, every single one of the symptoms he had could be explained by lymphoma. You know, a big open question is, did SARS-CoV-2 present clinically in Buddy's body? And what that means is, did the virus cause any of his symptoms - for example, the trouble breathing? I mean, was - and so I think it's tough, and we'll never have an answer to this. Was every single one of his symptoms the lymphoma, or was some of it the COVID? And the breakdown of that isn't something that we have an answer to.

KWONG: And you also posed the question, will - we won't know whether the cancer made him more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus.

DALY: Exactly. And that's sort of a big takeaway from his case. You know, are dogs or cats with underlying conditions, like cancer, as it turns out, more likely to contract the virus? Because we know humans are. We know humans - you know, it's thought that humans that have suppressed immune systems may be more likely to contract the virus. But not only that, maybe the virus may be more likely to present in ways that are more significant in their bodies if they're already immunocompromised. So the same question remains for animals, and we just have so little data to investigate it.

KWONG: Natasha, what research is out there about how COVID-19 affects companion animals like pets?

DALY: So, I mean, this is so new. This is an emerging disease in animals. There is a lot of, actually, research that's come out based on laboratory testing of animals, so animals that have been artificially infected with SARS-CoV-2. There is very little research and data that has come out about naturally infected animals. And so that's sort of the big open question for researchers. It's like how the virus, when it's naturally contracted by an animal, it may look very different than in an animal where the animal's been artificially infected.

KWONG: After Buddy was euthanized, the family opted to have him cremated, and a necropsy wasn't offered. What is a necropsy, and what would've been its function if they had been able to perform that on Buddy?

DALY: So necropsy is the animal equivalent of an autopsy. And typically, necropsies are performed to determine cause of death.

And so, you know, this - it's easy for us to look back in retrospect and say, oh, you know, OK, well, he had lymphoma this whole time. That may have been a reason why while Robert was there with Buddy when Buddy was euthanized, that may be why the treating veterinarian didn't ask him there about the necropsy.

But afterwards, they went ahead and informed the city of Buddy's death and asked the city, oh, do you want his body for any sort of scientific research? And the city then said, oh, well, we have to check with the federal government. And by the time the city heard back from the federal government that, OK, yes, the federal government did want a necropsy on Buddy, it was too late. And Buddy had already been cremated. So I think that this sort of indicates a bottleneck and sort of slow communication.

KWONG: Yeah.

DALY: You know, I think that Robert, you know, felt, like, almost a bit frustrated 'cause he didn't find out that that was even a discussion that was being had until I found out from my reporting and told him.

KWONG: I mean, it just - there's so many parallels to this experience and maybe some of the early days of COVID-19 treatment in humans, which is that little information, not a ton of protocol...

DALY: Yes.

KWONG: ...States operating independently, the federal government not having a kind of consistent response across the board and, ultimately, the decision-making really being with families and their care providers.

DALY: Absolutely. I think you've completely hit the nail on the head with that summary. That's exactly what the situation is. I mean, one expert told me that - I mean, even the sort of not recommended - that testing is sort of very limited and very sort of - veterinarians are actually asked to rule everything else out before they administer a COVID test. So, you know, in many ways, it's similar to sort of back in February with humans. I think that's actually - and I'm careful to draw that comparison...

KWONG: Sure.

DALY: ...Because we always knew that humans could transmit the virus, and we have no evidence that pets can.

KWONG: Right. Gotcha.

DALY: But, you know, I think what it does show is that currently, there is no protocol for once an animal tests positive. What is then done? You know, are certain tests - should certain tests be mandated? Should a necropsy always be mandated? And currently, there's no sort of established rubric for what you do, what a veterinarian does.

KWONG: So how is the Mahoney family doing since losing Buddy a few weeks ago? I understand they also have another dog named Duke that Buddy kind of raised.

DALY: I think they're doing OK. They should be able to pick up his ashes, I believe, this week. Duke, the 10-month-old puppy - I think he's been struggling. He's been lying in all Buddy's favorite spots. I think he's just confused about what's going on. You know, Duke, when he was tested, he tested negative, but he had antibodies indicating that at one point, the virus was in his system. And so the Mahoneys are now wondering, you know, could the virus have long-term effects on Duke's health, I mean, in many of the same ways that we wonder in, you know, people?

KWONG: Right.

DALY: It's just such an insane time for everyone and for them as well.

KWONG: Yeah. And Allison, she - you said in the piece that when she was driving - when they were driving Buddy to the vet to be euthanized, she said to him in the backseat that she was going to tell his story.

DALY: Yeah, that broke my heart when she said that because, you know, at that time, remember, they didn't yet know about the lymphoma. And they said to him, you know, I'm so sorry we gave this to you, but we're going to make sure that your voice is heard. And so that's what they did.

And so they had seen my original story on June 4 about the German shepherd case, and so I got an email from Robert about 2 1/2 weeks ago. And he said - he emailed me on my personal email, and he said, hi, I saw your story about the German shepherd. That's my dog, and my dog just died. And we went through 2 1/2 months of, you know, trauma, and I really want to talk about it.

So I was very appreciative and grateful that, first of all, that they came forward because this was the first time that the public had this information in a granular sense, and then secondly, that they trusted me and National Geographic to tell that story. And my hope is that, you know, by identifying some of these systemic gaps in the piece, it might inspire some sort of reflection in the veterinary community on the part of the federal government to maybe make some of this case data more widely available.

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KWONG: Natasha Daly. By the way, if you do test positive for the virus, the guidance from the CDC remains the same as it's been since April. Try, if you can - and I know it's hard - try not to make close contact with your pet.

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KWONG: Natasha Daly reported on Buddy the dog exclusively for National Geographic. We've got a link to her article in our episode notes, and we thank the Mahoney family for sharing their story.

This episode was produced by Brent Baughman, fact-checked by yours truly and edited by Viet Le. I'm Emily Kwong. We're back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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