Blog Post

Home / Blog Posts / Presidential Fireside Chat #8

Presidential Fireside Chat #8

Welcome to our eighth “Fireside Chat,” which we launched in order to share news about the state of the world’s animals during the global pandemic, and discuss how we can improve the world for our best friends with American Humane’s best friends.

During his 12 years in office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt broadcast a total of 30 of his famous “Fireside Chats” to help rally the nation in a time of crisis.  Today, I will be sharing breaking news on our work to improve and save the lives of animals around the world, and I am delighted that we will be welcoming a superstar of the animal health world to discuss what we all can do during the greatest crisis of our time.

Dr. Thomas Edling is one of the nation’s pre-eminent veterinarians and voices for animals.  Not only has he worked with virtually every major pet health organization in his positions as vice president and national director of veterinary medicine for Petco, but as one of the world’s top experts on zoonotic diseases, he worked together for many years with the CDC as an expert on some of the greatest health challenges facing the nation’s animals. I like to think of him as the “Dr. Fauci for animal health.”

Tom has been a remarkable contributor to American Humane, serving as Chief Veterinary Advisor to our Hollywood program, lending his expertise to our Scientific Advisory Committee helping make air transportation safer for our best friends, and helping inform our policies during the global pandemic.  He is a superstar and a champion of animals everywhere.  Please welcome Dr. Tom Edling!

Tom, to have you at American Humane during this precipitous time has been just tremendous, so thank you for what you have done advising us and for being a contributor on how we move forward with our mission. For months, American Humane has been at the forefront of debunking many of the dangerous and irresponsible myths and rumors that have been floating out there.

So my first question, Tom, is an especially important one for so many pet owners: Can our pets get the COVID-19 virus and can they give it to us and our families?

Dr. Edling: That’s the best question out there right now. There’s so much confusion and misinformation. There are many people trying to capture headlines and not truly thinking about what is going on in the world. When you look at today’s numbers, there are around 4.4 million cases worldwide and 1.4 million cases in the United States. Out of all those cases, there are only a handful of reported cases of animals with COVID-19. In the United States, everyone knows about the tigers and the lions at the zoo in New York. Outside of that, there are only two cats from New York that have actually been confirmed as having it by the USDA and the CDC. There’s all this misinformation going around, but only a tiny handful of animals around the world have been tested and found to have the virus in their system. Some of them have become slightly ill, but most of them don’t show any signs of the disease. What we know is it certainly appears that the virus that causes COVID-19, which is actually called SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-CoV-2 is the virus and COVID-19 is the disease), has caused some animals to become infected with the virus, but this is only after very close contact with people and in some laboratory settings. Out in nature, when we are walking around with our animals, if we get sick from it and we are really sick and we’re at home, closed in like we should be and cuddling with our animals, that’s how these animals are getting this disease. The tigers in the zoo got it from a handler — he didn’t know he was sick. Unfortunately, right before you feel the symptoms that you’re sick, that’s when you’re spreading the virus the most, that’s when you’re asymptomatic or presymptomatic. Some people who have the virus that aren’t feeling bad yet. That’s when they’re spreading the most virus. And that’s what they’re speculating happened in the case with the lions and tigers at the zoo. Thankfully, they’re all doing fine. The animals seem to either not really care too much about it or get well very quickly.

Robin: That’s been a big concern for me, Tom…when I’m out walking my dogs. I try to walk them three to four times a day because I’m at home now and can do that. It’s a luxury. But then I worry: Are they going to catch COVID-19 and bring it in? You’re basically saying that’s not really happening.

Dr. Edling: No, it’s not happening. Right before we got on this call, I was reviewing some information. I work closely with the CDC, as you said, and we were just reviewing some information that will go on the CDC website soon. There is currently no evidence that animals can transfer the virus to people. Now that may change. We don’t know. But you look at all the cases, and there have been no cases so far of that. That’s a pretty good indication that the risk is so small, if there’s any risk at all. This virus is spread from people to people. It probably came from a bat — that’s what we think. This type of coronavirus is found in bats. Who knows how it actually got to us, but it was through interactions between bats and people that shouldn’t have happened. The virus spreads from people to people and it’s typically from respiratory droplets. That means coughing, sneezing or talking, being in a confined area. When you’re out walking with your dog, if you maintain your six feet of distance — you and your dog — you should be fine. Out in the open air, it’s actually pretty difficult to catch the virus. It’s in confined spaces; businesses, restaurants, places like that where there’s a lot of people and every time you breathe, it goes out (if you’re infected, of course). It kind of fills up a room because these virus particles are so tiny that they can float around in the air. If you’re in a room long enough, you’ll eventually breathe it in and you’ll get it. If you’re out jogging or walking, as long as you keep your six feet, you have a very low probability of catching the disease in those circumstances.

Robin: If I’m wearing a mask out walking with my dogs, I’ll be fine outside?

Dr. Edling: Yes, and you know there are many types of masks. One is a true respirator, which is a N95. You’ve probably heard the term floating around. If worn properly, it will prevent you from getting infected through respiratory methods. Now, if you’re touching your nose, your eyes, or your mouth, that mask isn’t helping. Most people are wearing masks that are not N95 respirator-type masks, and that is protecting people from getting infected by us. So, when we talk or sneeze or cough, that captures viral particles in that mask, and so they don’t go out in the environment. That’s what the mask is really doing. It’s not stopping it from getting to you unless you’re wearing a respirator, but it’s stopping it from going into the environment. I think that’s an important point.

Robin: Tom, we need to get you on all these news channels to spread this word because you have such an important and valuable perspective, rooted in science and based on your years of experience working alongside the CDC, and developing our policies in terms of our relationship with animals. I appreciate those true facts so that we all can come through this crisis safely together. And something I wanted to ask you about, too, is the implication that we are going to get COVID from our dogs, which can lead to pets being abandoned during this crisis. American Humane has also been leading the charge to help the animals who have been abandoned during this crisis, encouraging Americans to foster or adopt a “pandemic pet” from a shelter or rescue. Can you talk to us a little about your thoughts on the media that is reporting a number of shelters have been emptied and a premature sense of victory? As you and I know, that’s not true. Maybe in some urban areas hardest hit by COVID, those shelters might be clear, but many shelters have tons of animals – am I right?

Dr. Edling: Yes, you’re right. I am going to make one more point about the pets before I move on to the shelters. Another question I get a lot is: Can you get the virus from petting your dog or cat? The good news is no, you’re not going to. Viruses are so tiny, they’re so small, you have to use an electron microscope to see them. The hair, or fur, of an animal is so porous that the virus actually gets inside the hair follicles. It’s so tiny that it’s captured there. So when you touch the dog or cat that has been coughed on by somebody, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that petting your dog will give you the virus.

Robin: You’re bringing up so many good points. Let’s just summarize for everyone on our call today: Tell me the top couple of points about COVID and our pets.

Dr. Edling: The real deal is there is no indication so far that pets are spreading it to people. It’s a person-to-person virus. It started with exotics and came from animals at some point because of people doing bad things and now it’s in the human population. This is not an animal virus, this is a human virus. Animals are not giving it to people. People are giving it to a very small number of animals. If you have it, you need to protect your animals. Don’t cuddle them, don’t snuggle with them, don’t sleep with them. Have someone else take care of your animal if you have COVID. Treat them like you would anybody else. These are our family members. It’s our responsibility, and I take this very seriously, as a veterinarian, to take care of the animals that we brought into our lives. We need to care for and protect our animals from ourselves. They’re not the danger here – we are. If you get the disease, treat a pet like you would a small child that needs to be protected, because that’s what they are. We don’t need to be scared of our animals. If you get the disease, treat them like you would any other family member. Isolate them from you and have someone else take care of it. I think those are the important things. Protect our animals. Don’t be scared of them.

Robin: What pets spread is unconditional love, not COVID. They spread love and we need a lot more love right now!

Dr. Edling: Absolutely. I get up every morning with my dog Luke, who was found wandering the streets and we’ve now had him for five or six years. All he does is look at me and my day is going to start off good. No matter what’s going on.

Robin: So tell me about the shelters. People think they can’t get a pet and that’s just wrong.

Dr. Edling: I’m not really a shelter vet person but I’ve been on calls and talking to people about it. There are some fabulous people doing amazing work out there – veterinarians and all the shelter workers. The workers that get paid almost nothing and are working with their heart. They have been doing an outstanding job during this crisis. The reason that you’re not seeing animals in shelter is they’ve been using fostering programs. At the very beginning, we thought there’d be a lot of abandonment. Luckily, there hasn’t been as much as we were scared there would be. We got the word out early, thanks to you and American Humane telling people to not be scared of their pets – and not to relinquish them. The fostering programs emptied a lot of space. The shelters wanted to make sure that if animals were brought in, they had special provisions. If an owner with COVID had to surrender their pet, they’re set up so they can go into an isolation area. That’s the reason that a lot of shelters— their numbers haven’t been as high. And a lot of people, because they knew they would be home for the next six to eight weeks, they adopted animals. So, as the economy and the world turns back to normal, and we start returning to work, a lot of those people who fostered animals will no longer be able to do that. So, they’re expecting an influx of animals back into the shelters. You know, the economic damages that are being caused by COVID are significant, too. We have horrible loss of life and illness, but the economics are horrible too, for many people. And many people are going to have to, through no fault of their own, because they can’t work, relinquish their animals. People can’t keep them anymore because they don’t have any money. And springtime, you know, is a double whammy. When I’ve worked at shelters, in the springtime there are a lot of fundraising and adoption events. Everyone is coming out of the winter doom and gloom and thinks, “Oh, let’s get a dog,” and they go to shelters and give money. Well, those things aren’t happening, so that’s really going to be hard on shelters because their funding is down quite a bit. What some of the shelters have done that is really nice is they’ve been putting together emergency kits for economically challenged people. They’re offering food, treats, and some of the organizations that have veterinary care at really reduced prices for people who are economically challenged. There’s a lot going on, but I think you’re going to see things get worse soon in the shelter community. They’re going to be overwhelmed as people start bringing animals back. It’s looking a lot like it did in 2008 during the downturn of the economic recession.

Robin: Tom, you’ve been such an important part of our efforts here at American Humane with our national campaign, Feed the Hungry, which we designed to help so many animals in those shelters that are struggling during these extraordinary times. I have an update for you and our listeners – through our incredible program, we have made life saving grants now to shelters and rescues in 24 states already, helping ensure that critical food, medicines, and supplies needed to keep animals alive gets to those who need it most.

One of the grants we provided went to Pet Pantry of Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, which operates a pet food bank, spay, neuter and vaccine services, and supports animal rescue through its adoption program.

Their co-founder and medical director, Dr. Bryan Langlois, wrote to us after receiving our grant and said:

“Times have not been good so far in 2020 for many pet owners and humane organizations. The need for such simple things as pet food can be hard to come by when financial strife hits.

We want to express a sincere thank you to American Humane and their Feed the Hungry grant program. Through your generous donation to us, we were able to keep our pantry shelves stocked, as well as have enough food to provide three months of it to those clients that we have on our monthly food handout program.

These people have pets they would otherwise not be able to keep for the simple fact of not being able to afford food for them. The grant money received from American Humane helps keep our own shelter animals happy, with full bellies as well. From all of us here at the Pet Pantry of Lancaster County and the thousands of animals we help every year, thank you.”

Well, you are very welcome, doctor….and thank you for all you are doing to help animals – and their families – when they most need it.

I am so grateful to Lulu’s Fund for making a significant contribution. Lulu’s Fund stepped up and made a sizeable grant to help us feed the hungry.

American Humane has already delivered hundreds of thousands of meals to dogs, cats, horses, sheep, and even remarkable and endangered animals living in conservation centers.  A special thank-you to our donors who have been so generous. I thank you, Tom, and our rescue team, for going through the grant applications and getting this money deployed. Every single day we are issuing more grant money to local shelters. We are so grateful to everyone who gave and pledged to this campaign, which everyone can support today by going to www.AmericanHumane.org.  Thank you so much for providing food, comfort, and a little kindness to our best friends in their worst times.

Kindness is probably more important now than ever before.

Last week, American Humane just finished celebrating the 105th year of our “Be Kind to Animals Week®”!  News of this longest-running commemorative week in U.S. history was carried by more than 1,500 news outlets across the country and, frankly, the timing couldn’t be better since, as you know, the global crisis we all face is a direct result of the inhumane treatment of animals and the sale of exotic animals for food in one of the world’s now-infamous “wet markets.”

Dr. Edling, can you give us your perspective on these markets and their impact?

Dr. Edling: These things just give me nightmares, seriously. I have seen way too many things that happen in these areas, and I wake up sometimes in a cold sweat because of what I’ve seen these animals going through. We can start with a differentiation. We have the term “wet market” for the entire market, like we see in Wuhan. And we can differentiate between a wet market, which is mostly just an open market that you might see in some European countries and some areas in the United States, and the wildlife portion of that market. I am going to zero in on that market. The wildlife market sells wild animals. From the list I saw recently, the one in Wuhan, they are literally selling badgers and wolf pups, snakes, and porcupines, and anything they can catch. They put them in these tiny cages in cramped, dirty conditions. These animals have been without food and water for a long time, and are scared to death because they are wild animals, mistreated and they’re pulled out and slaughtered before your eyes. They hit them on the head and start skinning them. It’s unthinkable. This is speculation, but we do think this is a cause of disease. All these bodily fluids, which carry diseases and bacterial viruses, are spread. We think it’s one of the ways that the current COVID outbreak could have started. They slaughtered a bat, and it went to another animal and then a person. We don’t know that for certain, but we know it’s happened at other times. MERS, back in 2002-2003, came through Civet cats. Some of these other markets, like one that just opened in Southern China in more of a rural area, are offering bats, scorpions and even cats and dogs. In our culture, we don’t eat cats and dogs, but some other cultures do. This needs to stop.

Robin:  To me – and I’ve expressed this strongly over and over in the media and to whoever else will listen – what is happening in these wet markets is a blatant violation of the social contract we have with animals.

We must insist that the kind of humane protections, scientific standards, and verifiably sound practices that we are promoting in this country be exported and adopted by all other countries around the world.

Until we fix the grievously broken social contract with the other species who share our world, and fix the many destructive violations humankind has allowed to occur to that unspoken moral obligation in our relationship with animals and the Earth itself, we can expect more and more crises of this sort.  It is not only a matter of ethics, but of survival.

We’ll be addressing this matter in a major new international platform shortly, which we hope will be game-changer in the humane field.

And now, Tom, I’d now like to turn briefly to some of the victories we’ve helped make happen and which give us some hope for the future.

American Humane, which as everyone knows, is the largest certifier of animal welfare in the world, is very pleased to welcome a wonderful new member to our growing worldwide family of humane institutions.

Denver Zoo, which is one of the best zoos on the planet, has just earned our American Humane Certified™ seal for the outstanding welfare and treatment they provide to the nearly 3,000 creatures in their care.

Denver Zoo sits on 80 acres of land and is home to such marvelous and endangered animals such as African lions, Amur tigers, Asian elephants and Sumatran orangutans.

Perhaps my favorite of all the wonderful animals there is Joona, the new baby Indian Rhinoceros they just welcomed into the world.  Only about 3,500 of these one-horned rhinos are left living in the wild, which just shows how vitally important zoological centers like these are to preserving the legacy of life on Earth for our children and grandchildren.

You can do your part by making sure that the zoos, aquariums and conservation parks you visit have the American Humane Certified seal of approval. You and your family can play a part in helping keep  endangered species safe for generations to come.  For a list of Humane Certified zoos and aquariums, visit www.HumaneConservation.org!

And, Tom, since you help keep so many animals safe through our Hollywood program, we should talk about the annual American Humane

Hero Dog Awards and some of the amazing stories we are hearing about dogs who improve and even save our lives every day.

This year, we have 408 heroic hounds in the running – the best of our best friends.  Let me tell you just one of their stories, the story of Sobee, as told by the person whose life she saved:

I am nominating my service dog, Sobee.  Sobee is a 4-year-old rescue who was two days away from being euthanized in a kill shelter in Georgia. I am a combat veteran who struggles with PTSD and a recovering addict.

I began self-medicating after returning home from two deployments.  I had no place to go except digging my grave, and with one last effort to have a good life, I got on a bus and traveled to where I grew up. 

I ran into an old friend who had a service dog, and I asked him if it helped.  He said it saved him and put me in contact with K9s On the Front Line and this is when my life changed. They gave me Sobee and we had an instant bond. I began getting outside, going for walks, and opening my curtains.

I was beginning to see the world again because of a dog. When I’m having a panic attack, Sobee is trained to bring me back to the present moment and reality. If we are out in public, Sobee is trained to watch my back.  Because of Sobee I was able to start a chapter of K9s On The Front line, paying it forward.

Sobee is a true Hero Dog. Without Sobee, I’d be dead and buried!

Sobee, thank you for being a hero when you were most needed.

To find more stories that will inspire you, gladden your heart, and maybe even make you shed a tear, go to www.HeroDogAwards.org . Vote for your favorites in each of seven categories and help us select the 2020 American Hero Dog, who will be unveiled at the tenth annual Hero Dog Awards, presented by the Lois Pope LIFE Foundation and broadcast nationwide on Hallmark Channel this fall.

I’d like to share another military story with you.

For more than 100 years, American Humane has been supporting our men and women in the Armed Services – often by supporting the military and service animals on whom they depend.

One of our programs called Pups4Patriots finds dogs in need of forever homes and trains them to become free, specialized service dogs for veterans coping with Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury.

These dogs improve and save lives for warriors coping with what we call the invisible wounds of war – and are especially important now, at this time of extraordinary stress and isolation caused by the pandemic.

Recently, American Humane received a letter from one of the veterans in our Pups4Patriots program named Amber, telling us how her service dog, Sophie, is helping her cope with the crisis.  Amber writes:

I would like to thank you for the gift of providing me to go through your Pups for Patriots program. Sophie is quite spirited and the patience from the trainers was amazing.  In the end, along with my working with her, we succeeded.  It was so helpful to be able to be an active participant throughout the training process.  Sophie and I are such a great team now. 

Sophie is now able to retrieve most anything for me, including my medicine bag, dropped keys, shoes and will pick up her leash and give it to me if I drop it. As a result of going through this program, Sophie has tuned into me so well that she is able to alert me in advance of me having a panic attack. On cue, she will create space around me by standing in front or in back of me, as needed.

Having Sophie in my life has given me the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and enable me to actually participate in daily life.  Because I am now able to take Sophie with me in public places like the grocery store and restaurants, I feel more comfortable in public and am able to be in situations that I normally would not be able to tolerate. For example, I would often abandon my grocery cart in the middle of the store without checking out because of my anxiety and PTSD. Now, I am able to complete many more trips with Sophie “having my back.”  I am also able to engage in more social situations I avoided in the past.   

Again, I want to say “thank you” so much for helping us to complete this journey. It has made such a great impact in the quality of my life.  

Thank you, Amber, for your service to our country…and thank you, Sophie, for your service to one of our brave veterans.  America needs you both and we are grateful beyond words for each of you.

In closing, let me first thank Dr. Tom Edling for visiting with us and sharing his expertise with us during these difficult times.  I’m sure he would be pleased to answer any questions any of you may have on how to keep your pets safe during this crisis.

The key takeaway for me today is that no matter how isolated we feel as we negotiate this modern disaster, we can still continue to work together effectively and make a difference for millions of animals, and people, too.

Please help us spread the word about all the work we are doing.   Our campaigns, our newsletters and our annual Impact Report are all on our website and can help recruit new humane warriors for our cause, which is more vital than ever before.

Thank you all for what you have done, are doing, and are continuing to do every day for the cause of animals.

I look forward to speaking with you in two weeks at our next Fireside Chat.  Please stay safe.

Recent Blog Posts

Our first-responders are there when animals need them most

From natural disasters to animal cruelty investigations, we are on the front lines protecting animals in times of crisis.

Contribute Volunteer