Texas Ebola Patient's Dog Won't Be Euthanized: Why Spain Responded Differently

Dogs Protest
Dogs wearing shirts are seen during a protest against the killing of Excalibur, the dog of Spanish nurse Teresa Romero who is the first person to contract Ebola outside of Africa. REUTERS

Ebola continues to rage through West Africa, with 8,376 cases and 4,024 deaths, inciting fear of infection, distrust in health and government authorities, and lots of violence. There have only been a handful of cases outside of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, and although fear of infection is rising, it seems that the concern in unaffected countries is taking on a more dramatic twist: to kill the dog or let it live.

Last week, Spain’s government followed through with its decision to euthanize Excalibur, the 12-year-old mixed-breed dog belonging to Ebola-infected nurse Teresa Romero Ramos. This happened despite Ramos’ husband pleading with government officials to change their minds, protests from animal rights groups and other supporters (in person and through social media), and a Change.org petition that garnered 407,000 signatures — as The New York Times notes, that’s far more than a petition asking the Food and Drug Administration to fast-track research on potential Ebola vaccines and treatments got.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the dog belonging to Ebola-infected nurse Nina Pham in Dallas will live. “This was a new twist. The dog’s very important to the patient and we want it to be safe,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told USA Today. Decontamination of Pham’s apartment began on Sunday with the dog still inside. Rawlings said that it would be transferred to another location with the help of the local SPCA branch and Dallas animal control.

Whether or not Ebola can be transmitted through dogs is debatable. A 2005 study looking at how Ebola affected dogs during the 2001 to 2002 outbreak in Gabon found that they could indeed carry the virus, but that they either developed antibodies to the virus or showed no symptoms. This means that if they were infected, we would never know. “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,” the researchers wrote. However, it’s poorly understood how and if they can transmit it to humans.

So, why did Spain’s government euthanize Excalibur while the U.S. is allowing Pham’s dog to live? Though both governments may have weighed how well-equipped they were to handle the virus, as well as considered the population of the cities these patients were in (Dallas has just over a million while Madrid has three million), it may have just come down to eliminating any possible threat.

“It will be interesting to note whether the Spanish authorities, while aware of the scarce scientific knowledge on the issue, may have based their difficult decision to euthanize the dog upon the ‘precautionary principle,’” Dr. Gian Lorenzo D’Alterio, an Italian veterinarian, wrote in an email published on the International Society for Infectious Diseases ProMED-Mail website. “In short, the precautionary principle is a notion which supports taking protective action before there is complete scientific proof of risk.” He said that this principle has been made a “statutory requirement” in some legal systems, such as the European Union’s.

Dogs are precious. They become our best friends, helping us get through the bad times and showing us unconditional love all the time. It’s heartbreaking to have a dog go out of an abundance of caution. But when a disease that’s killed nearly half of all people infected has the potential to break out of its containment, it’s up to our governments to make these decisions in the interest of the entire population. #RIPexcalibur.

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