The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus in the same family as malaria, yellow fever, dengue virus, West Nile virus and Chikungunya virus, which are also carried by mosquitoes. Unfortunately, the mosquito that carries the Zika virus is found in the United States. Until recently, Zika was unheard of by most people in the U.S., but there has been a spike in reported cases recently. It’s known that this is a dangerous virus for unborn children, but is it also harmful to dogs and cats? So far, researchers do not have a definitive answer.
The first confirmed case of Zika virus was found in Uganda in 1947 in a Rhesus monkey living in the Zika (overgrown) Forest. A year later, it was discovered in mosquitoes. The first human to contract the disease was in 1952 in Nigeria. There’s been little research done on the virus from the beginning because it wasn’t considered to be a serious threat to human health until there was an outbreak in French Polynesia in 2013. Another outbreak in 2015, this time in Brazil, infected around 1.5 million people and was the largest one to date.
It was during this outbreak that scientists began to connect the dots between the Zika virus and heartbreaking birth defects in human newborns. The symptoms of Zika are short-lived and generally mild – rash, fever, headache, joint pain, sensitivity to light and conjunctivitis. There currently is no treatment for humans. Most people who contract Zika aren’t even aware they have it and never become sick. However, unborn children are at risk and the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that the virus has the potential of reaching and spreading throughout all of the Americas.
Zika can cause a birth defect called microcephaly, which is an abnormally small head and under-developed brain. Travel alerts have been issued for people visiting countries or territories where Zika has been reported. The fear is that people who return to or visit the U.S. infected with the virus could in turn infect local populations of mosquitoes. The greatest risk is for a pregnant woman and her unborn child.
The three known species of mosquitoes that spread the virus are the Aedes africanus, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. The Aedes aegypti prefers to dine on humans, but the other ones aren’t as picky about where they get a meal from. A CDC researcher reported around 20% of bites from the Aedes aegypti in some rural communities in Puerto Rico were on dogs. The Aedes aegypti species is a daytime biter and can find you and your pets inside or out. This mosquito has a dark brown to black abdomen with white spots on its body and legs.
Research and experiments done on mice following the 1947 discovery of Zika – which was originally named ZIKV – found that mice could be infected with the virus. Scientists know that Zika can also infect humans and monkeys, but very little is known about how or if Zika poses a risk to our pets. So far, there have been no scientific studies on the effect of the virus on dogs and cats.
According to Chris Baker, a researcher who studies mosquito-transmitted diseases, there is a potential for pets to become infected. However, without more research it’s unclear if the virus would impact their health in the same way it does in humans, or if an infected dog or cat could transmit the disease to humans via a mosquito bite. The focus has been on controlling outbreaks and developing a vaccine (still a few years away) for humans and not on whether or not our pets are at risk.
The spread of the Zika virus is expected to continue throughout the Americas, and it’s recommended to take preventive measures to control mosquitoes in and around your home. That seems to be the best option we have, at least for the time being. The mosquitoes that carry the virus feed during daylight hours, so it’s important to do whatever you can to protect yourself and your pets from mosquito bites. Make sure to remove standing water around your home and yard. Mosquitoes are attracted to moist areas and lay eggs around and in standing water. Mosquitoes only need an inch of water to breed in, and rarely travel more than 1,000 feet away from where their breed. Rake up leaves, and keep grass and shrubbery around your home trimmed.
Currently, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the Zika virus and its impact on the health of our dogs and cats. When talking about becoming infected, that means an exposure to the virus that replicates in the body. There’s no evidence this occurs in dogs and cats, but it is a possibility. Can the virus make a dog or cat sick? Again, there’s no evidence to support this, so “maybe” is the best answer so far. Researchers have no clear answers for pet owners at this time.
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