Zika virus has been a hot topic in the news. Primarily spread through mosquito bites, the virus was first identified in Africa in 1947. Until recently, though, it was not seen outside Africa and Asia (occurrences in other places resulted from travel to these continents). It wasn’t something most Americans had even heard of. But in late July 2016, the first US cases of human Zika virus infection from local mosquitoes were seen in south Florida.
Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes are scary. Malaria, West Nile virus, yellow fever, and dengue have nasty reputations, and for good reasons. So, when a new mosquito-borne illness popped up, it was troubling.
People are eager to know more about the spread and dangers of Zika virus now that it’s on our turf. For those of us in the assistance dog community, we’re also worried about how this virus might affect our canine partners.
As of now, not a whole lot is understood about Zika virus. Unfortunately, as is often the case with diseases primarily affecting Third World populations and not seen in highly developed areas, Zika virus has been studied minimally. Now that it’s surfaced in North America, there’s a sudden push to learn all we can about it.
Here’s a summary of the official word on Zika virus in humans, plus what little information we have about it as it pertains to dogs.
Zika Virus in Humans
In addition to being spread through mosquito bites, Zika virus also appears to be transmitted through sexual contact. It poses one key threat in humans, specifically in pregnant women and their children. The virus can be passed from the mother to the fetus and cause a potentially debilitating and fatal birth defect called microcephaly, an undersized head, as well as abnormalities in eye development.
Otherwise, most people—4 out of 5—don’t even become noticeably sick from the infection. In those who do, it generally causes flu-like symptoms and resolves within a week without treatment (other than management of symptoms). It rarely causes death.
Zika Virus in Dogs
Going by what we know at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to worry about Zika virus in your assistance dog. However, it must be emphasized that we still have little knowledge of how the illness affects companion animals.
The CDC’s position is that, as of now, there are no reports of dogs or other companion animals becoming sick from Zika virus. Also, there’s no evidence that these animals can contract Zika virus or spread it from/to people or other animals. Furthermore, there’s no record of birth defects resulting from Zika virus infection in pregnant dogs or other animals (including primate populations that have been seen to be otherwise affected in similar ways as humans).
Remember the Biggest Mosquito-Borne Threat to Your Assistance Dog
There’s one parasite and resulting disease transmitted by mosquitoes that is a serious concern across the US and in many other places around the globe: heartworms and heartworm disease. This is a potentially fatal illness that is much easier to prevent than to treat. Talk to your veterinarian about a heartworm preventative plan for your guide, hearing, or service dog.