The once-obscure Zika virus is now making daily headlines as it surfaces in more countries and health officials rush to make recommendations to keep it from spreading.
We know the virus is primarily spread by mosquitoes. Only about one in five people infected with Zika virus will get sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even then the symptoms are usually mild. However, the disease has been linked to serious birth defects and other major health problems. We know it is of most concern to pregnant women and there is at least one case of it being spread by sexual contact.
But we don't know if our pets are at risk.
"I think unless you're talking about pet monkeys, which should be extremely rare cases, as far as dogs and cats, I don't know of any information or scientific studies on that topic," says Chris Barker, a researcher in the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology at the University of California, Davis. Barker studies the epidemiology of mosquito-transmitted diseases.
Of two common mosquito species that spread Zika — Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus — the former prefers biting humans and the latter has a broader palate. CDC researcher Roberto Barrera found that up to 20 percent of bites from the Aedes aegypti mosquito in several rural communities in Puerto Rico were on dogs.
"Certainly there's the potential for a pet to become infected," says Barker. "What we don't know is what that means for the health of the animal."
If a dog or cat were to become infected, we also don't know if they could spread the virus to humans.
"What would ultimately matter in terms of whether a pet would play a role in transmission is how much virus would be in the animals' blood," Barker says.
Although there have been no cases of Zika being transmitted via mosquito in the United States, the mosquitoes that are capable of transmitting the virus do live in the U.S. So one of the best ways to protect people (and pets) from possible infection is to practice good mosquito control on your property.
"Encourage people to limit mosquito production from their own backyards, and they should encourage their neighbors to do the same. That's one of the best measures we can take," says Barker. "Where we do have the mosquitoes, we want to do everything we can to minimize the mosquitoes and limit the transmission risk."