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First dog to test positive for COVID-19 dies

Buddy's family is releasing the German Shepherd's medical records to help researchers study coronavirus in animals.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Buddy the German Shepherd turned seven in the middle of April. Six weeks later, he became the first dog in the U.S. to test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. His symptoms ranged from heavy breathing and loss of appetite, to weight loss and vomiting. By July 11, Buddy was gone.

Now his owners, the Mahoney family, are releasing the dog's medical records, hoping they'll help researchers better understand the connection, if any, between animals and coronavirus. So far most of what we know comes from research done on cats in labs.

Two veterinarians who reviewed Buddy's case spoke exclusively with National Geographic. They say generally, pets aren't affected. If they do get sick, it's likely from their owner. Most pets have mild symptoms and recover. As seems to be the trend with humans, pets with underlying conditions have worse symptoms. Right now the CDC recommends social distancing with your pets as well, until more research is done. They also offer these guidelines if your pet tests positive for COVID-19. 

In Buddy's case, his owner had coronavirus. But additional bloodwork done the day of Buddy's death points to lymphoma, a type of cancer, causing many of his symptoms. Veterinarians say it's not clear if cancer made Buddy more susceptible to getting coronavirus, if the virus made Buddy sick, or it this was all coincidental timing. National Geographic says fewer than 25 animals in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COVID-19, compared to more than 4 million people.

It took Buddy awhile to be diagnosed. Many vet clinics were closed because of the pandemic. Those that were open, wouldn't let one of Buddy's owners, Robert Mahoney, inside because of his positive COVID-19 diagnosis. The dog was prescribed antibiotics over the phone. 

The Mahoneys told National Geographic they took Buddy to three different veterinarians on Staten Island between April 21 and May 15, but none of them suspected coronavirus. Many said they didn't even have COVID-19 test kits. 

Finally, one month after Buddy's symptoms began, a veterinarian was able to test him for coronavirus. The results came back positive, the first in the nation for a dog. The Mahoney's puppy, Duke, tested negative, but had antibodies, meaning he likely had the virus at some point.

Once Buddy tested positive for coronavirus, Robert Mahoney told National Geographic he reached out to New York state health leaders. Mahoney offered up his dog for more testing, but the state declined.

New York's Department of Health told National Geographic they didn't take more blood samples because Buddy was severely anemic, so they didn't want to further jeopardize his health.

Robert Cohen, a veterinarian at Bay Street Animal Clinic, told National Geographic about his conversations with New York City Health Department and the USDA about Buddy's condition. 

“We had zero knowledge or experience with the scientific basis of COVID in dogs,” he says. Even with all the experts on one call, he says, “there was a lot of silence on the phone. I don’t think anybody knew. I really don’t think anybody knew at that point.” 

Unfortunately, Buddy's condition continued to decline week after week. The Mahoneys decided to euthanize him on July 11. Cohen contacted the state again, asking if they needed the dogs body for more research. But by the time the health department answered and asked for a necropsy, Buddy had already been cremated. 

Elizabeth Lennon, a veterinarian who specializes in internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, reviewed Buddy’s medical records for National Geographic. She says those records will be another piece of the puzzle added to national and international databases of animal cases of coronavirus and studies done on pets in labs. She hopes to publish more research within the next 6 to 12 months.

In an interview with National Geographic, one of Buddy's owners vowed his death would not be in vain.

“My pet was like my son,” Allison Mahoney says. “When he was passing away in front of me, he had blood all over his paws. I cleaned him up before we drove to the vet and stayed with him in the back seat. I said, ‘I will have your voice heard, for all our furry friends. Your voice will be heard, Buddy.’ ”

The Mahoneys say they're adjusting to life without Buddy. They say their 10-month-old German shepherd puppy, Duke, is sleeping in his brothers old nap spots. The family hopes to pick up Buddy’s ashes this week.

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