Pets in the time of Ebola

Ebola is world news. The preposterous response of the Western world to the crisis in Africa is world news; that a man was diagnosed with Ebola in Texas is world news; and most recently it is world news the first two cases of Ebola contagion outside of Africa, one in Spain and the other one in Texas.

According to the Spanish authorities the contagion happened when a Spanish nursing assistant touched her face, whilst wearing the gloves with which she entered the room of a Spanish missionary who had been flown back from Africa after contracting Ebola. The Spanish authorities have said that her condition is stable and her husband is being closely monitored. On the other hand, how did the Texan nurse got Ebola is still being investigated by the US authorities. Excalibur-el-perro-de-Teresa-R_54416909040_51351706917_600_226

One salient feature of these cases is that both nurses had dogs with which they were in contact after contracting Ebola. The Spanish dog was put down last Wednesday because, according to the Spanish authorities, there was no place with the appropriate biosecurity measures where the dog could have been quarantined and treated ( in a recent post, in Spanish, I examine this case). In the case of the Texan dog the authorities said that they will take care of it and that it will not suffer the same fate as the Spanish one. Dallas Mayor, Mike Rawlings, said “The dog’s very important to the patient and we want it to be safe.”

The fact that the nurses had contact with their dogs makes us ask if all companion animals that have been in contact with someone that has contracted Ebola should be euthanized.

The answer to this question is that it depends on the specific circumstances. Why? Because while in Africa and Spain, and many other countries, there might not be the necessary veterinary resources for treating such animals, in Texas, or more broadly within the US, there are enough veterinary resources for treating them (all the following discussion hinges upon the fact that there are such resources).

Let’s examine the Texan case.

The first thing to notice is that dogs can get infected with Ebola but they are asymptomatic, which means that they should not be put down because of the effects of the illness on their welfare. It also must be noted that: “Given the frequency of contact between humans and domestic dogs, canine Ebola infection must be considered as a potential risk factor for human infection and virus spread.”(p. 389)

Now, if in fact there are the necessary veterinary resources for treating a dog that has been in contact with someone with Ebola, then what should be done is to quarantine the dog and check if it is carrying the disease. If the dog is clear of the disease then there is no need to euthanize it and it should go back to its home.

On the other hand, if the dog had contracted Ebola then three courses of action could be followed. The first would be to euthanize the dog, if in fact there was no way of knowing if it would carry the disease in latent way for a long period of time, thus being a threat for humans and other non-human animals. The problem with this first option is that, according to Eric Leroy (co-author of one of the few papers that look into domesticated animals and Ebola), if the dog has Ebola then it has very chance of recovery; and when cured, the virus would have been completely eliminated. This means that euthanasia is not necessary as a first course of action, since it can be properly contained.

The second option is to treat the dog. A specialised team could quarantine the dog to receive treatment. Given that it would make a successful recovery, according to what we know about how the disease manifests in dogs, we could wait until the dog is clear from the virus and then it should be brought back home. This means, again, that euthanasia is unnecessary.

The third option is to use it for medical research, for example by letting the disease naturally advance in order to gain scientific insight into how Ebola acts on dogs and how it could be transmitted to human. If there were enough resources and political willingness I think that a mix of 2 & 3 would be the right course of action. In fact, Leroy stated that this option should have been followed in Excalibur’s case (the Spanish dog). Depending on the importance of the medical data that could be generated, a government that at first could be reluctant to putting people at risk, by means of taking care of a dog with Ebola, could change its mind, which would be good for the dog and good for us. The third option does not require that the dog is euthanize.

At this point someone could argue that the Texan authorities should put down the dog given that it might be a source of contagion for the veterinary personnel in charge of it.  This, as the case of her guardian shows, appears to be a more serious possibility. If such dog becomes part of medical research, which would be the most beneficial and desirable thing to happen, then the veterinary personnel in charge of it would, nonetheless, be at risk of contagion. In this case, before granting permissions to treat the dog, authorities should weight the possible benefits of such research against the probability of the veterinary personnel getting Ebola. It is true that the Texan government cannot force veterinarians to treat the dog, but on the other hand there might be veterinarians that have the appropriate training for dealing with such cases, and who are willing to do so. If there were such veterinarians then they should be allowed to treat the dog.

César Palacios-González



What is wrong with artistically tattooing a dog?

So the story goes like this.

Zion (a pit-bull mix)’s spleen needs to be removed. While she is under the effect of the anaesthetic his guardian, a tattoo artist (Alex), tattooed her with “a red heart impaled with an arrow, Cupid-style, with the first name of the inker and his wife”. Afterwards he uploaded a picture of his dog’s new tattoo to Instagram and, as you may suppose, all hell broke loose.


The New York Post reports that a lot of people on Twitter got mad (nothing unusual there); that the owner of the tattoo parole where Alex used to work stated that the tattoo was not done in his shop and that he is an animal lover (implying that what Alex did was wrong?); that animal-rights advocates criticised Alex (as you might expect); and that someone from the ASPCA said that such actions were not something that the ASPCA supported. A spokeswoman from that association said: “The tattooing of an animal for the selfish joy and entertainment of its owner, without any regard for the well-being of the animal, is not something the ASPCA supports”.

There was a lot of clamour and anger (death threats included) around the story, so I thought it would be a good idea to explore and explain quite why cosmetically tattooing a dog is wrong.

Let’s start by saying that tattooing a dog is not inherently wrong. According to the RSCPA identification tattoos are an adequate form of animal identification. They mention that some the reasons for encouraging them are that:

  • Identification is the key mechanism for reuniting ‘lost’ dogs and cats with their owners.
  • Identification helps ensure that responsibility for an animal’s behaviour can be correctly attributed, for example in the event of a dog attack.
  • Visible identification discourages cruelty, theft and fraud, thus helping safeguard the welfare of the animal.
  • By clearly connecting owner and pet, identification can reduce the likelihood of abandonment and encourage owners to take responsibility for their animal’s behaviour.
  • Identification can be an essential component of legislative systems that seek to ensure owners take adequate responsibility for their animals.


This being the case, some could claim that there is no difference between Zion’s tattoo and other types of dog’s identification tattoos. This would mean that if the people that perform identification tattoos on dogs do not do anything morally wrong, then Alex also did not do anything wrong when he tattooed Zion.

Even when some could find this exculpatory reason compelling I think that there are two problems with it: a problem about how identification tattoos function, and a problem about tattooing itself.

Identification tattoos

First, if what morally justifies dogs suffering the experience of getting an identification tattoo (that involves a painful procedure, discomfort, the risk of infections, and where the site of the tattoo can take up to three weeks to heal) is that such branding will help them be reunited with their owners, then it is not clear that Zion’s tattoo could be defended on this grounds. Why? Because Zion’s tattoo cannot be considered as an identification tattoo- it does not fulfil two necessary characteristics that an identifying tattoo should possess: i) lasting visibility and ii) adequacy to the norms of a unified registry.

Zion’s tattoo is not located in a place that fulfils the lasting visibility requirement. It should be obvious that her shoulder hair will grow back to its original length and will make the tattoo less visible or not visible at all (although only time will tell). Having this in mind the RSPCA recommends that identification tattoos are done either in the inside surface of the ear pinna or the inside thigh of a rear leg.

Second, and more importantly, Zion’s tattoo is arbitrary in the sense that there is no way in which someone could use it to go to a register and find who is Zion’s owner and how to contact him. It is true that Zion’s case is popularly known but this is not a warranty that someone could actually find Zion’s owner in the case that she gets lost (there is no full name, address and telephone that can be retrieved by only searching her tattoo in a registry). In point of fact the RSPCA warns that: “Owned companion animal tattoos can often be arbitrary or illegible marks, with no useful function for identification.” Identification tattoos only work because there is a standardized numeric or alphanumeric system and a centralised registry that keeps the information associated with each number. Being this the case we can conclude that the lack of lasting visibility and the tattoo arbitrariness means that Alex cannot justify his actions by suggesting that Zion’s tattoo is an extravagant type of identification tattoo.


Artistically (or cosmetically) tattooing a dog is wrong because it is an unnecessary procedure that causes discomfort and pain for no other reason than the joy and entertainment of a person. It is unnecessary in the sense that the tattoo does not promote the dog’s interests but only brings harm to it.  It should be obvious that it is morally wrong to wantonly cause suffering to sentient beings.

Someone could defend Alex’s actions by saying two things: first that actually Zion was under the effects of the anaesthetic while being tattooed and therefore she did not suffer and second that people that perform identification tattoos also cause pain to those who are being tattooed and we do not think that they are doing something morally wrong.

Let’s grant, for sake of argument, that Zion did not suffer while being tattooed. I think that even if we grant this Alex’s actions are still wrong because the pain caused by being tattooed is not limited to the tattooing process, but it extends to the healing period (as anyone with a tattoo knows). This means that while Zion’s new tattoo was healing (over up to three weeks) she was enduring unnecessary pain and discomfort (additional to the pain and discomfort caused by the surgery).

In order to address the second point it is important to remember that we have said that the moral justification for tattooing a dog (considering all the welfare implications that we have mentioned) is that the pain to which it is subjected while being tattooed is outweighed by the benefits that an identification tattoo brings about. It is a really good trade-off for a dog to suffer the whole tattoo process in exchange of easy identification and reunion with his owner; instead of being locked in a shelter and afterwards euthanized (if not rehoused rapidly). Alex’s actions cannot be justified on the previous terms because Zion’s tattoo would not help her be reunited with him.

What was wrong with Alex’s action is that Zion was subject to a lengthy, painful and discomforting recovery (that involves risk of infections) only for the joy and entertainment of its owner, and this is clearly a terrible trade-off for the dog. As Zion’s guardian Alex should have known better that putting his joy and entertainment before Zion’s interests. If Alex wanted to express his creativity using Zion as canvas then he could have used something that did not harm the dog as a tattoo does. For example, he could have used a washable colour spray for painting dogs like the one that PetPaint, offers.


Finally it is important to realise and bear in mind that I am not saying or suggesting that Alex is a really bad person who does not care for Zion. For example compare Zion’s history with Petey’s, who apart from being tattooed was neglected and abused. I think that someone who spends thousands of dollars to keep his dog alive and well is commendable. What happened in Alex’s case is that he made a bad decision, that in fact is morally reprehensible, but that does not say that in general he is a bad guardian.


by @CPalaciosG