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Protecting your ferret: How to prevent COVID-19 or flu transmission to your mustelid friend

By Dr Rebecca Harwin

Protecting your ferret: How to prevent COVID-19 or flu transmission to your mustelid friend

Have you wondered how you can protect your mustelid friend from the COVID-19 pandemic or the flu? Global government guidelines tell us to wash our hands and stand 1.5 metres apart, but is there another way that we can reduce transmission? Are there other options we are not being told about?

Ferrets are zoonotic animals, meaning they can catch illnesses from their humans. An article published at Nature quoted researchers, “Ferrets are highly susceptible to infection with the COVID-19 coronavirus.” However, as the Ferrets and COVID-19: What You Need to Know article pointed out, this is due to the way that ferrets are inoculated in a laboratory setting.

In the lab, test animals are given higher inoculations than would be expected in nature. Even so, COVID-19-infected ferrets haven’t died. Though they do develop fever, occasional coughing and appear lethargic, with their activity slowed. At this stage, I have not read any reports of pet ferrets being infected with the virus through natural transmission.

Still, I believe it is clearly important we take steps to protect our fur family from disease. It’s no fun being sick.

As we bunker down to avoid succumbing to COVID-19, the news and mainstream media focus on the carnage: the infection rates, the fatalities, the flailing economy. Yet reporters ignore an important factor, one that may reduce our susceptibility and that of our faithful furry friends. It is within our power to boost our immune function and, in doing so, possibly protect ourselves and our ferrets.

Before we discuss evidence-based ways to boost your natural immunity, let’s take a peak at what a virus is and does…

A virus is made from, at minimum, its genetic material and a surrounding, protective shell. It’s a small, streamlined packet of information. Because of its teeny size, it lacks the machinery to reproduce. Without duplication, a virus would meet its end rather quickly. So, to ensure survival, they possess a secret weapon.

By hacking into cells, where the right equipment to replicate is readily available, it can copy, print, copy, print itself quickly. It’s like a devious burglar entering The Mint under the radar, then using the specialised tools to achieve her wealthy ambition. In the case of the virus, the aim is duplication and survival rather than dollars.

At some point, the body’s guards notice the would-be thief and raise the alarm. With a virus we’ve experienced before, say the common cold, the body can rapidly identify the intruder and attack. It’s a little like face recognition. It can pull the exact virus’s playbook from the biological shelf, read the pages, then mount a fast response. It does this though specialist cells known as antigen-specific lymphocytes, acting like the Mint’s military guard.

However, the current coronavirus is novel, meaning simply that it is new. As such, we don’t have immune memory (the standby military guard) to identify it and take targeted, appropriate, action at speed. This is one of the reasons COVID-19 is so troublesome.

Tip: If you’d like to know more about viruses, how they infect people and our pets, and specifically how these tiny invaders can effect your ferret, read Ferrets and COVID-19: What You Need to Know.

However, the incredible human body is innately designed to ward off and destroy foreign invaders: both those we know and those we don’t. It has been doing so for millennia which is why we, humans, still thrive on this planet.

How can we enhance our wellbeing, protecting ourselves and our ferret friends in the process? Let’s take a look…

Calm stress

While short-term stress can subdue the immune system, longer-term stress has broader reaching impacts. The latter can suppress both arms of the immune’s military guard: the cellular and humoral divisions.

Especially now, when the media is intent on whipping our worries into a fierce flurry, it’s important to carefully consider what you watch.

Practice mindfulness meditation, play with your children, read a light novel, watch a comedy, laugh heartily, practice calmed breathing — take three, slow and deep breathes and, as we discuss below, exercise regularly, eat well and get enough sleep.

Exercise regularly, even in lock down

Being physically active leads to prompt relaxation, improves cardiovascular health, remodels the brain in wonderful, youth-building ways, and simply feels good due to the rush of endorphins. It also enhances our immune function.

A study published in the journal Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry found that being active enhanced immune cell activation in response to pathogenic stimulation. That means that by exercising often, our immune system can better respond when it comes into contact with a foreign invader. The study authors noted simply, “Regular physical exercise can enhance resistance to many microbial infections.”

Researchers have also looked at the impacts of exercise on infection rates and recovery. One study found that those who engage in medium-paced exercise programs experienced less upper respiratory tract infections, and recovered quicker. Being active protects you against disease.

How much exercise should you do?

Walking 45 minutes per day, five days per week is enough to reduce of incidence, lower severity, and shortened longevity of illness.  Stretching programs of a similar length also gifted protective results.

The proviso… Going to extremes can harm the immune system.

If you are able, walk along the beach, through the park, down locals streets. Of course, maintain social distancing. If you are in lock down, workout to exercise DVDs, streaming classes, or say hello to that long-disused home gym. Maybe you have a treadmill masquerading as a clothes horse?

Dance, clean, engage in wall pushups and floor crunches. Imagination is a wonderful resource, it may be time to get creative!

Up your vitamin C intake

Vitamin C might be commonly available, but its contribution to immune defence in anything but average. When a cell is infected, vitamin C helps to attract attention. Phagocytic cells are summons and engulf infection like PacMan devouring his favourite ghosts. This nutrient then helps to mop up the mess.

An article published in the journal Nutrients noted, “Supplementation with vitamin C appears to be able to both prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections.”  This nutrient is found in berries, blackcurrants, broccoli, capsicum, guava, lemons, limes, oranges, strawberries and tomatoes.

Ensure sufficient vitamin D

With current movement restrictions, I suspect many people will spend a greater amount of time inside, reducing sun exposure and so vitamin D production. This can be counterproductive as this vitamin is difficult to obtain through food and is important for healthy immunity, including antimicrobial responses to pathogens.

If you have the option to engage in safe sun exposure, take it. If not, speak to your health professional about the possible need to supplement.

Sleep well

If you are not sleeping well, it’s time to focus on slumber-inducing habits. Poor sleep can harm your immune system.

Research has shown that a single night of poor sleep can reduce natural immune responses, including the activity of natural killer cells. Yes, including those Pac men cells we talked about earlier. The wonderful finding? Following one night of recovery sleep, levels return to normal.

How can you improve your sleep?

1) Meditate during the day and before sleep

2) Ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet and cool

3) Get out into the sunlight in the morning

4) Practice deep breathing techniques

5) Keep a diary by your bed so if you wake in the night, worried, you can jot down your concerns and let them go, safe in the knowledge they’ll be there in the morning

6) Ensure your bedding is comfortable and supportive

7) Have a warm shower or bath before bedtime

8) Eliminate blue light for at least 90 minutes before retiring. That means setting down your screens or, at least, using a blue light filter

9) Use lavender oil for its evidence-based mild sedative abilities

10) Drink tea and carry on as the English say. Chamomile tea, that is

Quit smoking

Do you smoke? Now is the perfect time to quit.

Tobacco use damages the lungs and causes a wide range of respiratory diseases. It also harms the immune system and its ability to respond. The result is that smokers experience an increased vulnerability to infectious diseases.

As authors of the study, COVID-19 and smoking: A systematic review of the evidence, said, “Previous studies have shown that smokers are twice more likely than non-smokers to contract influenza and have more severe symptoms, while smokers were also noted to have higher mortality in the previous MERS-CoV outbreak.”

In essence, smoking increases your risk of contracting a viral infection and having serious adverse outcomes.

Given we are already living with the COVID-19 pandemic, is it too late to benefit from quitting?

Absolutely not! Within minutes, your heart rate will drop. Within weeks, your lung function will improve. Within months, the cilia, the lung’s tiny hairlike structures that escort mucous up and out, begin to heal. This eases coughing and reduces the risk of infection.

Yes, these times are unprecedented. Yet your incredible body continues to support you, as it has always done. It is constantly working to quell foreign invaders and keep you well. Focus on the steps that enhance your immunity like regular exercise, nourishing foods, sufficient sleep and managing the emotional storm. And if you smoke, now is the time to quit.

Oh, and if you test positively for COVID-19 or the flu, temporarily avoid kissing your ferret as you may just pass this virus along.

References:

  1. Smriti Mallapaty. Coronavirus can infect cats — dogs, not so much. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00984-8. Accessed 23/04/20
  1. Young-Il Kim et al. Infection and Rapid Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Ferrets. Cell Host Microbe. 2020 Apr 6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7144857/. Accessed 23/04/20
  1. Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul; 130(4): 601–630. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/ Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. Zheng Q. Regular Exercise Enhances the Immune Response Against Microbial Antigens Through Up-Regulation of Toll-like Receptor Signaling Pathways. Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry. 2015, Vol.37, No. 2. https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/430391. Accessed 23/04/20
  1. Stephen A. Martin. Exercise and Respiratory Tract Viral Infections. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2009 Oct; 37(4): 157–164. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2803113/. Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. David C.Nieman and Laurel M.Wentz. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. Journal of Sport and Health Science. Volume 8, Issue 3, May 2019, Pages 201-217. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254618301005. Accessed 23/04/20
  1. Carr AC and Maggini S. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017 Nov 3;9(11). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29099763. Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/. Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. Martin Hewison. Vitamin D and immune function: an overview. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Volume 71, Issue 1. February 2012 , pp. 50-61. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/vitamin-d-and-immune-function-an-overview/302152110AEE222430F44164E53FEA90. Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. M Irwin et al. Partial night sleep deprivation reduces natural killer and cellular immune responses in humans. The FASEB Journal. April 1996. https://www.fasebj.org/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.10.5.8621064. Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. Goel N, Kim H, Lao RP. An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiol Int. 2005;22(5):889-904. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16298774. Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. Constantine I. Vardavas and Katerina Nikitara. COVID-19 and smoking: A systematic review of the evidence. Tob Induc Dis. 2020; 18: 20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7083240/. Accessed 23/04/20.
  1. Benefits of Quitting Smoking Over Time. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/stay-away-from-tobacco/benefits-of-quitting-smoking-over-time.html
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