Winston, the first dog believed to have contracted the coronavirusin the U.S., can now rest easy. The adorable, viral pug actually never had the virus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed.
This revelation comes as the USDA, the department responsible for confirming COVID-19 cases in animals, announced the first official case of the coronavirus in a dog, a German shepherd in New York.
That dog, according to the USDA report published Tuesday, showed signs of respiratory illness after two of the dog’s owners exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 and one of them tested positive. Another dog in the house did not test positive or show symptoms but had antibodies.
The USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories tested Winston “but were unable to verify infection,” agency representative Lyndsay Cole told USA TODAY.
“The weak detection … from the original oral swab may be the result of contamination from the COVID-19 positive household,” she said in a statement.
Three of Winston’s human family members — Dr. Heather McLean, Sam McLean and their son — tested positive for COVID-19 in March, and researchers at Duke University, where Heather works, administered tests on everyone in the household as part of a study on how the coronavirus can be treated.
Dr. Shelley Rankin, a professor of veterinary microbiology at University of Pennsylvania who is unaffiliated with the Duke study, told USA TODAY that there may have been discrepancies in how research labs such as Duke’s and veterinary diagnostic labs such as USDA’s facilitate testing and the handling of the infected specimen.
“Samples can be positive initially but can be degraded with specimen handling,” Rankin said.
Rankin explained that false positives “can also occur if the original specimen had a very low number of organisms.”
Guidance from veterinary groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, has largely remained the same: It remains unlikely that household pets can contract COVID-19, and no evidence has been found to suggest that animals can transmit the disease to humans.
Still, Rankin suggests avoiding contact with your pets if you have COVID-19. If you are unable to find someone else to take care of your pet, the AVMA suggests that you wear a mask with every interaction and wash your hands before and after.