A significant percentage of dogs, cats and horses tested in a Dutch study showed evidence of being exposed to the Hepatitis E virus.
More attention on the potential role of pets in transmitting the Hepatitis E virus to humans is warranted, say researchers.
Hepatitis E virus, a single-stranded positive-sense RNA virus, is an emerging pathogen that has shown an ability to cross between species.
Transmission from domestic, wildlife and zoo animals to humans has been widely reported.
“Whether pets also serve as reservoirs remains an intriguing question,” Yunlong Lin and his colleagues wrote in the Irish Veterinary Journal.
In their study, the study team from the Erasmus MC-University Medical Center and Utrecht University tested samples from dogs, cat and horses in the Netherlands.
They found that 30 of the 162 dogs tested — that’s 18.52% — carried antibodies in their serum against the Hepatitus E virus.
Seventeen of the 47 cats (14.89%) were also sero-positive, as were four of the 22 horses tested, representing 18.18% of the equines.
The study team said in their short report that although they found no Hepatitis E viral RNA in any of the samples, they did show that dog liver cells are susceptible to Hepatitis E infection in a laboratory setting.
“These results call more attention to address the potential role of pets in the zoonotic transmission of Hepatitis E,” they said.
The authors noted that, until now, only two studies had investigated the prevalence of Hepatitis E infection in horses.
In 200 working horses tested in Egypt, 26 of the animals (13%) were found to carry antibodies against the virus, and four of the 200 (2%) carried RNA from the virus.
In a study from China, eight of 49 horses tested (16.3%) were carrying antibodies against the virus and RNA from the virus was found in one of the horses.
“Overall, our data suggest that companion animals are frequently exposed to Hepatitis E and thus potentially infectious for humans in close contact with these animals.”
In apparent agreement, when compared with the general population, veterinarians and workers who are frequently exposed to canines have significantly higher rates of antibody positivity.
The authors, discussing their findings, said they found substantial positive rates of antibodies against the virus in dogs, cats and horses, but viral RNA was not detected.
However, the sample size was relatively small and may not be fully representative for the Netherlands, they said.
They urged further investigation into the prevalence and the potential of zoonotic transmission from pets.
The full study team comprised Li, Changbo Qu, Bart Spee, Ruyi Zhang, Louis Penning, Robert de Man, Maikel Peppelenbosch, Hille Fieten and Qiuwei Pan.
Li, Y., Qu, C., Spee, B. et al. Hepatitis E virus seroprevalence in pets in the Netherlands and the permissiveness of canine liver cells to the infection. Ir Vet J 73, 6 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13620-020-00158-y