By Heather McLean, MD, as told to Jennifer Clopton
My husband’s an ER doctor who has been treating patients since before widespread COVID-19 testing was available, so we weren’t surprised when he got the virus. Given how contagious it is, we also weren’t shocked when I tested positive for it a few days later and then our 20-year-old son showed symptoms.
What was surprising was the fact that the diagnoses didn’t stop with the humans in our family. Our dog Winston tested positive for the novel coronavirus too, becoming, we think, the first known dog in the U.S. to do so.
We wouldn’t have had any idea our sweet, affectionate pug had the virus if we hadn’t enrolled our family of 4 in a Duke University study testing participants who’ve recovered from the coronavirus for antibodies. Our 17-year-old daughter was exposed to the virus but never showed symptoms, so researchers wanted to test her too to see if she was a carrier.
As doctors, we were eager to be involved in any way we could with research aimed at helping advance knowledge about COVID-19 in the hopes of finding new treatments or vaccine options. Once we recovered from the virus, we also felt lucky and grateful that we didn’t have to be hospitalized from it, and we wanted to do what we could to give back to others who get it. Our ultimate goal was to be cleared to give plasma to others struggling with the illness.
Testing our pets wasn’t something we thought about doing until it was presented as an optional component of the study. At that point we figured – why not? When we enrolled in the study in mid-March, we had heard about a few animals in Asia testing positive for the virus but none in the U.S. Never in a million years did we honestly expect we’d see anything similar in our pets, but on a lark we figured – why not test them to see?
Being in the study required all of us to get weekly blood tests and nose and throat swabs for a month. At the first home visit, the researcher did throat swabs on our 2 dogs, Winston and Otis, and our cat Mr. Nibs, too. The researcher declined to put her hand in our lizard’s mouth (understandably), so we’ll never know about her.
When the results came back, Otis and Mr. Nibs were negative, but shockingly, Winston tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Looking back, he did have a cough for a few days while we were sick, and there was one morning he wouldn’t eat breakfast, which is out of the ordinary for him. But those symptoms were never severe enough for us to even think we needed to call the vet. It’s hard to know if those things were related to this virus or just a coincidence. We also don’t know if he actually had the infection or if it was just found on his tongue since that is where he was swabbed. Winston has a long and impressive tongue that hangs out of his mouth all the time, and he licks everything you can imagine, so researchers are doing more tests now to try and better understand his positive result.
In the meantime, our dog has gone viral. It seems crazy to us that Winston is the first pet in the U.S. to test positive, but the fact that he is has brought him a lot of attention. It’s weird to see your dog’s silly face all over national TV and newspapers and strange to do interviews and lift him up so reporters can take his picture from a socially distant 6 feet or more. He’s even dealing with a little paparazzi when we go on walks. Nobody wants to get too close, but everyone wants to take a picture of the first dog known to have coronavirus.
For the most part, this has seemed like a surprising and entertaining story that people enjoy hearing during this difficult time, but we do hope other pet owners are reassured to know that our dog fared very well despite testing positive for the virus. Participating in this research study has also been very meaningful for our family. My son and I are now undergoing additional testing because it looks like we have a lot of antibodies to the virus and could be good candidates to donate plasma.
As I mentioned, Winston is doing some additional testing for researchers as well.
Maybe there’s more they’ll will learn from him or maybe not. Either way, he’s had a busy few weeks. Not only was he a great source of comfort to us while we were sick, but now I feel like our sweet dog is helping so many others too – by contributing in an interesting and tiny way to research and by simply making people smile when they see his silly face in a news story. He is oblivious to all of this, of course, while he lies at my feet napping with his tongue hanging out. But we will never forget all he has done during this pandemic, and it just makes us love him all the more.
In addition to being the mom of 2 children and 3 pets, Heather McLean, MD, is Vice Chair for Quality, Department of Pediatrics and Co-Director for Quality & Safety at Duke Children’s Division of Hospital Medicine in Durham, NC.