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.
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.