Thirteen dogs have now tested positive for COVID-19. Four have died. Why are the public records being hidden?

How much do veterinarians know about how COVID-19 affects our dogs? The answer may surprise you.

As of August 13, thirteen dogs in the United States have been confirmed to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Four of the thirteen died around the time they were infected.

On its website, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) tracks confirmed cases of the virus in animals. The four highlighted bars are dogs that have died.

The numbers are arguably meaningless. After all, thirteen is a fraction of a fraction of the U.S. population of household dogs. But these are just the ones we know about because the Department of Agriculture has been told about them. And although, when it comes to reportable diseases like Covid, there is a reporting protocol that laboratories and veterinarians are expected to follow that is supposed to ensure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds out about cases in animals, that all assumes that the animal shows up at a veterinarian’s office somewhere at some point. Even the impressive and widespread covid surveillance testing programs implemented by Antech and Idexx, two of the largest veterinary laboratory testing companies in the world, rely on the notion that owners show up with their pets at a veterinarian’s office.

As more pets are infected, and as more of those infected become sick, the cases – particularly, the records from the cases – become more important.

“If I had been Buddy’s veterinarian, the scientist in me would have wanted a necropsy, but the reality of veterinary practice in the COVID-19 world doesn’t always mesh with our desire for science.”

“The pandemic has upended the entire veterinary medicine profession,” staff doctor Ann Hohenhaus of the world-renowned Animal Medical Center in New York wrote in a recent blog post on the hospital’s website. She was writing about the case of “Buddy,” the first dog to test positive for the virus. A German Shepherd in Staten Island, New York, Buddy died weeks after testing positive. “In the… article, Buddy’s family says they wish a necropsy [an animal autopsy] had been offered,” Dr. Hohenhaus continues, referring to an article published in National Geographic. “[The family] wanted to help veterinarians understand SARS-CoV-2 and its possible role in Buddy’s death.”

“First, let me say thank you to every pet owner who has allowed their pet to provide a learning opportunity by consenting to a necropsy,” she continued. “If I had been Buddy’s veterinarian, the scientist in me would have wanted a necropsy, but the reality of veterinary practice in the COVID-19 world doesn’t always mesh with our desire for science. The article suggests more animals should be tested and more research should be done. That is certainly true, but keep in mind that veterinary research was largely shut down during the height of the pandemic and is only now reopening.” Yet other industries that are in the business of information, such as the news media, did not shut down during the pandemic. So, where is the demand for the science behind the quotes from the veterinarians in the press releases?

News Media Blackout

To date, no news organization has published any necropsy or even an excerpt from any of the COVID-19 dog case files. Only second-hand, cursory interpretations of tests are in the public domain, and that information leaves more questions than answers.

According to a press release issued on Tuesday by North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, a dog was brought to North Carolina State University Veterinary Hospital by its owner on August 3 in “respiratory distress” and the dog died soon after, according to the press release. The owner informed hospital staff that a family member had tested positive for coronavirus, which prompted hospital staff to have the dog tested. The dog’s test result was positive and the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsequently confirmed the positive test results, according to the press release. A necropsy was performed; however, importantly, no formal decision or opinion was issued on the cause of death. Instead, the press release, wittingly or unwittingly, establishes a confusing that leaves the public to fill in the blanks.

“Due to patient confidentiality, no additional information about this case will be provided.”

North Carolina public health officials declined to release the necropsy to TCR, and when pressed for information such as the age, breed, and gender of the dog, a spokesperson declined to provide them, citing ‘patient confidentiality’ (although the owner is not a patient and pets are not covered by HIPAA). In response to TCR’s requests seeking additional information about the case, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services communications director Kelly Haight Connor wrote:

The owner of the dog tested positive for COVID-19 and due to patient confidentiality, no additional information about this case will be provided. This is the first dog identified with a confirmed infection in North Carolina, so identifying dogs that are infected with, or transiently colonized by, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be very rare.  As such, we do not believe that dogs represent a significant risk factor for infecting humans and other dogs.”

In fact, the North Carolina press release does not mention the dog’s owner’s medical information. The release says that “a member of the family” tested positive for the virus, according to the owner. Thus, the owner is not a patient. And, even if the owner had tested positive for the virus, TCR is not seeking any information about the owner. Most important, the issue is not necessarily whether dogs pose a risk to humans (no legitimate medical expert has suggested that our dogs are infecting us) but, rather, how the disease affects our dogs and the risk it poses to them.

TCR has now filed public records requests in New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia — the four states in which dogs have tested positive and died. Additionally, we are seeking records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But why must TCR embark on a dragged out legal process for the same information about dogs that is readily available about people with regard to Covid?

“We are not releasing any additional information…”

According to Georgia’s Department of Public Health,a six-year-old mixed breed dog “developed a sudden onset of neurological illness which progressed rapidly over the course of a couple of days, and was humanely euthanized.” The dog was tested for the virus “out of an abundance of caution” because its owners had recently tested positive, according to the statement. Pressed for details, Nancy Nydam, a spokesperson for Georgia’s Department of Public Health, told TCR in an email last month: “We are not releasing any additional information other than what is in the news release until we get the final histopathology and immuno chemistry results which might be another 1-2 weeks.” That was about one month ago.

Nydam declined to release the necropsy, too, saying that her health department did not conduct the necropsy and therefore could not provide it. However, in another email, Nydam wrote,  “The only new information I have is that the final necropsy results confirm the dog’s cause of death was a brain tumor. The other dog in the home is not ill and tested negative for SARS-CoV-2.” Whether SARS-CoV-2 exacerbated the dog’s illness is a question TCR would have preferred to pose to dozens of specialists. It’s a question that belongs in the public domain, in medical journals, and in the news media.

TCR is asking Georgia officials to release any and all records upon which they are basing their statements about the dog. They have declined to provide even the name of the facility where the necropsy was performed. Given the complexity of this dog’s case and how relatively few veterinary neurologists are currently practicing in the United States, we wondered if a board certified neurologist was even involvd in the necropsy, let alone the dog’s treatment. These factors matter.

In South Carolina, a dog that tested positive for Covid-19 was also euthanized because of chronic respiratory disease, according to a press release, but the necropsy remains hidden. Why? On July 16, South Carolina public health officials announced, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, that ‘an 8- or 9-year-old shepherd mix’ had tested positive for COVID-19.  The dog was euthanized days later, according to state veterinarian Boyd Parr, because of a chronic respiratory illness. No records have been released even though a necropsy was performed.

Yesterday, TCR filed a records request with South Carolina state veterinarian Dr. Boyd Parr under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, §30-4-10 et seq., requesting email communications, laboratory tests, the necropsy report, and any other data or analysis referring to the dog that tested positive for COVID. TCR also filed a request for the same records with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

TCR also filed records requests yesterday with New York State’s Department of Agriculture, New York City’s Department of Health, and North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Veterinary Records and the Law

When it comes to custody of veterinary records, the law varies from state to state. Based on our own in-house counsel’s cursory reading of North Carolina and South Carolina statutes and administrative regulations on veterinary records, TCR could not find anything about a public health/safety exception allowing the records to be made public.  Both statutes say that the records are the property of the animal’s owner.

However, this is where things get complicated: Once the owner of an animal or a veterinarian communicates information about an animal – particularly if the information is about a reportable disease during a pandemic – to a public official, that information by virtue of the fact that the communication itself is public record, is public and no longer protected by veterinary records statutes because the record is released once it enters the domain of the government.

The Secret World Of Covid-19 in Animals

Ironically, the COVID-19 world of human medicine – a world that has more lawyers, more regulations, and where reporters joke that almost any media request can be denied by a communications official citing HIPAA –  has somehow fostered more information sharing and transparency than veterinary medicine. Human health care workers are not hesitating to share vital information about COVID-19 patients (without, of course naming them) with medical academics, news media, and the general public, such as age, race, underlying health conditions, and gender. However, veterinary health care workers and public health officials have repeatedly declined to share information about cases of the virus in domestic pets, citing ‘patient confidentiality’ without citing any legal basis.

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services press release announcing that the first dog in the state had tested positive for COVID-19 and died triggered a deluge of local news headlines such as “Dog in NC dies from coronavirus complications, health officials say.” In fact, that’s not what the press release says; far from it.

The release, without providing even so much as the dog’s breed, age, gender, or any underlying health conditions, says that a dog that tested positive for COVID-19 with symptoms of “respiratory distress” has also died; however, the cause of death has not yet been determined, even though the necropsy has been completed.

Although TCR is in the business of reporting about issues related to dogs for sophisticated owners and focuses on consumer, business, and health reporting, our mission to deliver fact-based, quality journalism to dog owners frequently involves media reporting in our efforts to correct the record and insist on higher standards of transparency and the same kind of information and reporting we’ve grown accustomed to in the human COVID-19 world.