BUDDY LIKED DOG stuff: running through the sprinklers, going on long car rides, swimming in the lake. He cuddled the Mahoneys—his owners and family—at the end of tough days. He humored them when they dressed him up as a bunny for Halloween. He was a protective big brother to 10-month-old Duke, the family’s other German shepherd. He loved everyone. He lived up to his name.
In mid-April, right before his seventh birthday, Buddy began struggling to breathe.
Six weeks later, he became the first dog in the United States to be confirmed positive for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. On July 11, Buddy died.
Medical records provided by the Mahoneys and reviewed for National Geographic by two veterinarians who were not involved in his treatment indicate that Buddy likely had lymphoma, a type of cancer, which would explain the symptoms he suffered just before his death. The Mahoneys didn’t learn that lymphoma was being considered as the probable cause of his symptoms until the day of his death, they say, when additional bloodwork results confirmed it. It’s unclear whether cancer made him more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus, or if the virus made him ill, or if it was just a case of coincidental timing. Buddy’s family, like thousands of families grappling with the effects of the coronavirus around the world, is left with many questions and few answers.
Until now, Buddy’s identity, the details of his case, and his death were not public. A press release issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in early June revealed his general location (Staten Island, New York), his breed (German shepherd), his likely source of transmission (a COVID-positive owner), and his status (expected to recover). Public records for the few other pets to have tested positive in the U.S. are similarly sparse.
Upon announcement, Buddy’s milestone case appeared fairly open and shut, but the Mahoneys’ experience over the two and a half months between their dog’s first wheeze and his death was one of confusion and heartbreak. Their story puts a spotlight on the rare experience of being an owner of COVID-positive pet—a distinction shared by only a handful of individuals around the world. While more than four million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S., fewer than 25 pets have. There’s no rubric for how to navigate COVID-19 in your pet dog.
“You tell people that your dog was positive, and they look at you [as if you have] ten heads,” Allison Mahoney says. “[Buddy] was the love of our lives….He brought joy to everybody. I can’t wrap my head around it.” The Mahoneys say they are frustrated that health experts didn’t more closely probe possible connections between COVID and the cascading health problems. After Buddy’s diagnosis, Allison’s husband, Robert, asked New York City veterinary health officials, who were in charge of the case, whether they were interested in doing more testing on Buddy. Robert Mahoney says the officials never asked for further testing or exams.
The New York City Department of Health told National Geographic that because Buddy was severely anemic, it did not want to collect additional blood out of concern for the dog’s health, and that confirmation results indicate it was unlikely that he was still shedding virus—meaning he was probably no longer contagious—by May 20, when he was tested the second time. Buddy wasn’t tested after that date.
For humans, the signs and symptoms of infection vary widely. In some, its presence is barely a flicker. In others, it causes total organ failure. For many, it’s somewhere in between. Having an underlying medical condition increases susceptibility, doctors think. We’re learning more every day.
The narrative for the coronavirus in animals, however, has so far been consistent and narrow: They are rarely affected. When they do get the virus, it’s almost always from an owner. They have mild symptoms. They usually recover.
In reality, little is known about how the virus affects the typical pet dog.
The Mahoneys’ detailed accounts and Buddy’s veterinary records now comprise some of the most comprehensive and granular information the public has on an infected animal. Their story also sheds light on the gaps in public knowledge regarding animals and the novel coronavirus, highlighting what may be a need for a more unified, consistent approach to monitoring and investigating positive cases, and bringing that information back to the research community.
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SOURCE: National Geographic, Natasha Daly and Kholood Eid (photographer)