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Mysterious vomiting disease in dogs is due to novel coronavirus

A newly discovered coronavirus — but not the one that causes COVID-19 — has made some dogs very sick.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Key Takeaways
  • A different coronavirus outbreak in late 2019 made many dogs in the UK very ill.
  • The strangeness of the disease led veterinarians to send questionnaires to their peers and pet owners.
  • The findings point toward the need for better systems to identify disease outbreaks in animals.

    A recent study suggests that a mysterious disease plaguing dogs in the UK is caused by a novel coronavirus. This virus, which coincidentally appeared in late 2019 and began to concern veterinarians in early 2020, is not related to the virus which causes COVID-19, but can make your four-legged friend feel quite ill.

    Novel coronavirus in dogs

    The term “coronavirus” doesn’t refer to a single disease, but a family of viruses (more formally, Coronaviridae) that share a shape similar to a crown (hence the name, “corona”). They infect many different kinds of animals and cause various diseases from COVID-19 and SARS to the common cold.

    This new coronavirus, a variant of canine enteric coronavirus, was first noticed in January 2020 when a veterinarian in the United Kingdom treated “an unusually high number” of dogs with severe vomiting and other gastrointestinal issues at his office. Concerned about this spike in doggy indigestion, they reached out to other veterinarians to see if they were reporting a similar outbreak.

    Online questionnaires were sent out to more than a thousand vets and pet owners to map the outbreak and collect information on which animals were being affected. Analysis of this data showed that nearly all of the cases involved vomiting and a loss of appetite, and half of them also involved diarrhea. Most of the cases took place in south and northwest England, though a large outbreak also occurred in and around the Scottish city of Edinburgh.

    The data also suggested that male dogs in contact with other dogs were most likely to be infected, hinting at “either transmission between dogs or a common environmental source.” The dogs recovered in more than 99 percent of cases.

    Hoping to move beyond the questionnaire, the authors also turned to records to piece together what happened.

    While public health data for animals is less frequently gathered than it is for humans, electronic records of pet admissions to veterinarian offices and pet insurance payouts do exist. The researchers accessed these records and found that the number of dogs recorded with stomach problems rose between December 2019 and March 2020, with nearly double the number of expected cases occurring during that time. There was also a concomitant rise in prescriptions for drugs to treat those conditions.

    A later comparison of samples from dogs that were sick and healthy control dogs confirmed the presence of the novel coronavirus in the ill dogs. All of this was later compiled into astudy that was recently published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is produced by the CDC.

    Should I be concerned?

    This coronavirus only affects dogs, and the researchers didn’t find anything to suggest that humans could become infected.

    However, the scale of the outbreak and the lack of tools immediately available to determine what was happening led the researchers to suggest that better organization is needed. Many of the authors are involved in creating a disease surveillance system for dogs, known as SAVSNet-Agile.

    The authors also mention that “previous CeCoV [canine enteric coronavirus] seasonality suggests further outbreaks may occur.” Thanks to this study, your local vet might be a little more prepared for it next time.


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