By Dr. Becker
Zika virus has been on many people’s radar since last November, when cases of birth defects, including microcephaly, were reportedly linked to Zika virus in Brazil.
Zika virus is primarily spread to humans via the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, which are also the type that carry and spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.1
Since the first cases were reported, there have been a limited number of locally acquired Zika cases reported in South Florida, but whether local spread is likely in the rest of the U.S. is a controversial subject.
There is also some debate over whether Zika virus alone is responsible for the rise in birth defects seen in some Zika-affected areas. Despite this, many people are concerned about the potential for Zika virus in their area, not only for themselves but also as it may pertain to their pets.
While research into Zika virus is ongoing, at this time it seems fairly certain that pets are not at risk of Zika virus, nor are they able to spread it to their human families.
Pets Do Not Appear to Be Involved in Spreading Zika Virus
There have been no reports of pets becoming infected with or sickened by Zika virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They note:2
“At this time, animals do not appear to be involved in the spread of Zika virus. There is no evidence that Zika virus is spread to people from contact with animals. There have not been any reports of pets or other types of animals becoming sick with Zika.”
Even if you live in an area where Zika virus is being actively spread, there is likely little risk to your pet, and you needn’t worry that you could contract it from your pet either.
The virus was first discovered in the 1940s in a monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda, so it’s known that non-human primates (apes and monkeys) may be infected in addition to humans.
However, infection appears to result in only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all in infected monkeys and apes.
According to the CDC, research from the 1970s found other animals, including horses, cows, water buffaloes, goats, ducks and bats could be infected with Zika, although there is no evidence showing they develop disease or transmit the virus to humans.
In addition, the birth defect microcephaly has not been reported in animals living in areas where Zika virus is being spread. Likewise, it’s unlikely that pets born in a Zika zone will have Zika-related birth defects.
There’s also no need to test pets for Zika virus. There’s currently no evidence that dogs or cats can contract or transmit Zika virus, and there are no veterinary diagnostic labs offering this type of Zika testing.
Do Mosquitoes Pose Any Threats to Pets?
Mosquitoes can be dangerous to pets, but not because of Zika virus. A much more prevalent threat is heartworm, a parasitic disease that’s spread by mosquitoes. Heartworms are a type of roundworm that lives in the blood vessels and heart of infected pets.
The worms can grow to be up to a foot long and lead to serious damage to the lungs, arteries and heart. Left untreated, heartworm infection can be fatal.
Natural heartworm prevention options are always available for those who do not want their pets to take prevention drugs. Many conventional veterinarians suggest pet owners give their dogs a heartworm-prevention drug every month, year after year, but this ignores the fact that many dogs are not at risk of heartworm year-round.
The benefits of heartworm preventives must be weighted against their potential for short- and long-term side effects. In addition, heartworms are growing increasingly resistant to these widely used preventives, which suggests an urgent need to use them only when absolutely necessary.
If you live in a heartworm-endemic area, work with your holistic or integrative veterinarian to develop a sensible preventive protocol to keep your pet safe and healthy.
Like Zika virus, other diseases spread by mosquitoes, such as West Nile Virus, are very rare in dogs and not thought to pose a significant risk to pets.
Do Not Use DEET-Containing Insect Repellents on Pets
You may be tempted to spray DEET insect repellent on your pets to give them some extra protection against insect bites. However, DEET can be deadly to pets, especially at higher concentrations.
Exposure to DEET-containing insect repellents may cause a number of serious symptoms in your pet, including difficulty breathing, disorientation, tremors, seizures, vision damage and skin irritation. If you live in an area where mosquitoes are problematic, take steps to minimize them, such as:
- Remove sources of standing water (including changing pet water bowls frequently)
- Avoiding walking your dog in areas with lots of mosquitoes, such as marshy areas
- Install screens on all of your windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out of your home
- Mosquitoes are most active in the early morning and early evening, so keep your pets indoors during these times
For times when you know you'll be at high risk of mosquito bites, botanical oils specifically formulated to be applied to pets make an excellent natural repellent. Examples to look for include blends of lemongrass, neem, catnip oil and geranium oil, which can help repel and deter mosquitoes and other pests (including fleas and ticks).