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Puppies doing research with a microscope and stethoscope.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A big, blinking, red stop sign of warning: There is absolutely no connection between the COVID-19 virus and any canine coronavirus referenced in this article. Most importantly, even though dogs can get a mild respiratory form of the canine-specific coronavirus, that virus is totally unrelated to the current human pandemic. Bottom line: Your dog cannot give you COVID-19.

As the coronavirus pandemic upturns every aspect of daily life, many Americans are perched on the edge of not knowing, taking things day by day, and in some cases, hour by hour. That’s a feeling dog breeders know all too well.

Many dog breeders are used to adapting on the fly when they are expecting a litter. In all but real emergencies – such as when a Caesarian section is required, or when drugs are needed to jump-start uterine contractions – puppies are born in a breeder’s home, not a vet’s office. As “mom-and-pop” veterinary practices give way to big conglomerates, the ability to call a trusted vet for middle-of-the-night assistance is ever-diminishing.

As a result, breeders learn to be creative, trying anything that might prevent the spread of disease and save their precious puppies. At least one experimental plasma treatment for the COVID-19 virus being explored in humans – infusing seriously ill patients and at-risk health-care providers with blood plasma from those who have survived the disease – is strikingly similar to how some breeders treat newborn puppies that have an equally devastating but entirely different type of canine virus.

Plasma Treatment For Fading Puppies

A viral infection that affects the reproductive organs of grown dogs, canine herpes usually doesn’t produce symptoms in affected adults. At the very most, it will usually induce a runny nose and sneezing. But if a female who has never had the virus is infected during pregnancy, she can transmit it to her puppies in utero. As its name suggests, humans cannot be infected by canine herpes virus, which is also seen in coyotes and wolves. Humans can’t be infected with the canine version of coronavirus, either.

Informally called “fading puppy syndrome,” canine herpes virus causes maddeningly vague and increasingly distressing symptoms in the first week to 10 days of life, just when newborn puppies start to thrive. The symptoms come on quickly – disinterest in nursing, labored breathing, nasal discharge, and agonizing, non-stop crying. Then, one by one, the puppies slip away, leaving the breeder feeling helpless and heartbroken.

Deutscher Wachtelhund puppies sitting side by side outdoors.

As has been proposed for human COVID-19 treatment, some breeders have had success in treating these “fading puppies” with injections of plasma spun down from the blood of dogs that have already had the disease. That approach is grounded in basic immunological principles, says Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club.

“We all know that the best protection against a disease is getting it and recovering from it,” he says. “That’s the premise of a vaccine,” which tricks the body into thinking it has the disease. It then prompts the body to produce antibodies to fight the invader. In this way, if the “real” version of the disease strikes, the body is primed to neutralize it.

In the case of COVID-19, a safe and viable vaccine is still at least a year away, according to most experts. While a vaccine for canine herpes virus is available overseas, it is not approved in the United States. The plasma treatment skips that step of triggering the immune response in the infected patient. Instead, the injections rely on the antibodies circulating in the donor’s blood to repel the disease in their new host. In the case of canine herpes virus, however, knowledge of how the disease progresses and how long antibodies are present after exposure is crucial.

How Plasma Treatment Works In Dogs

Dr. W. Jean Dodds, founder of Hemopet, the nation’s first nonprofit animal blood bank, notes that plasma injections are only helpful if the donor has a significant number of circulating antibodies. And in the case of canine herpes virus, she says, “the highest titers are usually present only in the first three months after the dog has recovered from it.”

The most obvious choice for plasma treatment is the dam of the litter. Dogs are pregnant for only about two months, and when exposure happens during that time, the new mother should in theory still have a good number of circulating antibodies. That’s all well and good, says Dodds – “unless it’s a Chihuahua,” or any other small breed that simply can’t provide enough blood to generate plasma for all the puppies. Time is also of the essence when treating the disease.

“If you treat these early signs with herpes-recovered plasma, all or least some of the puppies should survive,” Dodds says, noting that it’s advisable to treat the whole litter as soon as one puppy shows relevant symptoms.

The plasma is injected subcutaneously, or under the skin, as well as intraperitoneally, or into the abdomen. She does note, though, that with the latter method, there is a risk of piercing a young puppy’s organs or bowel. Dodds says another issue is finding a vet clinic with a large enough centrifuge, which is needed to spin the drawn blood into plasma. Teaching hospitals at veterinary universities and larger urban emergency and specialty clinics are often a good bet in this regard.

Clues For COVID-19 In Humans

One option for breeders with at-risk litters or a family of dogs that have known herpes issues is to draw the anticoagulated blood of any dog recently recovered from herpes, spin it, and freeze the plasma in smaller amounts in the event it will be needed in the future. That’s exactly what Dodds did for a client who was desperate to get a female puppy out of her Rottweiler to carry on the bloodline. The mother had already lost two litters to the herpes virus. Apparently unable to resolve the virus, she presumably kept reinfecting her newborns.

The Rottweiler’s third and final litter yielded four puppies, which were injected with their mother’s thawed plasma. Two survived – including that much-longed-for female. While not a perfect ending, it was still a happy one. While every virus is different, and it remains to be seen how effective injections of “convalescent plasma” might be in human COVID-19 patients, plasma treatment in dogs offers a glimmer of hope at a time when we need it most.

The AKC is here to help owners with questions and concerns about COVID-19 and dogs. Find answers to your questions, plus at-home activity ideas, training tips, educational resources, and more on our Coping With COVID-19 hub.
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