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On the coronavirus versus animals, on keeping snakes as pets and on falconry

Fast confession – Lukáš Duchek, the founder of Vetcentrum: No one cares about medical attention for pets from COVID-positive homes

Karolína Lišková
17.Feb 2021
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11 minutes

Illnesses ail not only us humans – animals share the same fate. Few know it better than Lukáš Duchek, the man who founded Prague’s pet clinic. asked him about his thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic through both human and animal perspective, about our society’s shift in pet health perception, as well as all the various household members he’s ever treated.

Apparently, animals can get a coronavirus, too. Have you ever met one that did?

You could as well ask if there are fungi in a forest... There obviously are, it just depends, which kind of fungi you have in mind. Same goes for the coronaviruses. They are a large family of viruses consisting of many different species, some specializing in humans, some in various animals. They were with us long before COVID-19 as harmless respiratory or gastrointestinal coronaviruses that no one considered severe, which used to be the case right until they mutated. Let’s leave the discussions about whether the mutation was spontaneous or someone „helped“ it to others. The main thing is that now there’s a dangerous strain known as COVID-19, which is a mutation of a former less harmful coronavirus.

A similar thing happens in the animal kingdom. Dogs get a gastrointestinal coronavirus infection that primarily affects puppies, with pretty mild symptoms in most cases. There’s less than one percent of puppies with severe problems; the symptoms resemble those of the parvo. Mind you, the parvovirus affects dogs, again, mostly puppies, attacking the gastrointestinal tract and causing bloody diarrhoea with vomiting. Parvovirosis is very severe, often fatal. The canine coronavirus causes something similar, only that it’s much more benign; most animals recover from it completely, often with mild to no symptoms.

Cats can get a gastrointestinal coronavirosis, too; just as with dogs, it’s a mostly innocuous disease. However, for some unknown reason, their coronavirus mutated into a so-called feline infectious peritonitis, which is very dangerous. To this day we don’t know, how it works, although we suppose it came from the original feline gastrointestinal coronavirus, despite having completely different symptoms and course. Nevertheless, this harmful mutation causes a so-called „slow virus disease“, known as the FIP – similar to our human AIDS. This means the disease is chronic and lethal; there’s no cure. The original feline coronavirus is a pretty harmless gastrointestinal infection, similar to the canine one, but the mutated version is a slowly progressing killer, coming for the cat not fast, but certainly steady.

Prodej funkcionalistické vily Praha - 360m
Prodej funkcionalistické vily Praha - 360m, Praha 8

Where does our human coronavirus, COVID-19, come into all this?

It’s a coronavirus, too. They have the same relationship as the mushroom, which we eat, and the toadstool, which we don’t, although they’re both fungi. A whole bunch of viruses carry the same genus name – much like dogs, we have our own, gastrointestinal coronavirus, that used to be harmless. Now it mutated, just as the feline infectious peritonitis affecting cats. They have their FIP, we have our COVID-19, causing, unluckily, a great amount of trouble, as it’s really a dangerous mutation.

There were, however, some media articles about dogs having human COVID and even infecting their owners.

Dogs can become passive vectors just as anything else, such as a doorknob or a chair. Of course, unlike a doorknob, the dog offers a warm, damp environment, that the coronavirus enjoys slightly more and therefore survives there for a bit longer. But that does not mean the dog himself could contract the disease and spread it around! If a dog lives in the same household as a COVID-infected person, of course you’ll find the coronavirus on it for a certain amount of time, just as you would on a contaminated chair or a pair of gloves. Once the human patient is cured, he ceases to be a source of the virus, which soon dies out and disappears from the whole household.

Even from the dog?


So you’re saying our COVID-19 can’t harm our pets?

It cannot harm them, nor can they spread it. However, they can become passive vectors.

Did you have any owners scared that their pet has human COVID in your practice?

No, I did not. Although the media surely aren’t helping – and our government even less so – the public seems to be, to my surprise, quite sensible, thank God. People really have it together, they don’t let themselves get scared by this fiction of their pets contracting COVID. What’s worse is the problem of getting medical attention to animals from quarantined or coronavirus-plagued homes. There’s not a single clinic equipped with, say, a sanitary airlock.

I've never thought about this... If I contracted COVID and had to be quarantined, I’d simply have someone else from my family to take my dog to the vet...

Sure. But your dog would be a passive vector. So what can we do, when he pops into our waiting room? Nothing, that’s what. Either we tend to him, compromising everyone else’s health, or we send him away, because he’s a vector and can contaminate our whole clinic. And you’re in trouble, since no one would see him, or, if they would, they’re jeopardising their whole staff and all of the other clients in the waiting room.

What’s the solution, then?

There isn’t any. No one bothers, no one seems to care. Either the vet takes the risk – not only for himself, but, sadly, for all the other, unknowing clients as well – or he doesn’t. The dog doesn’t come with a warning sign, there are no regulations. He simply is a passive coronavirus vector, and there’s no way to wash it off him. You can sanitize a doorknob or a door, but not a dog – he has it all over himself, in his respiratory tract, on his mucosa, in his fur...

Did you have a dog like that in your clinic?

Being the boss, I had to make a decision. Now we treat dogs from quarantined households, where the owner actually isn’t COVID-positive, if it’s a serious case. Nonetheless, we don’t treat dogs from COVID-positive homes.

So the dog has to wait, to undergo quarantine just like his owner.

Yes, he has to wait, since there’s simply no clinic capable of treating a dog from a COVID-positive household in a way that won’t cause further spreading of the virus.

How can you check the dog isn’t coming from a COVID-infected home?

The owner has to tell us.

And what if the dog keeps being a vector, even after the quarantine ends? Can you swab his nose to test him?

Sure we can. The antigen tests are the same.

So you can use the same test for both the dog and his owner?


And then you’d be sure.

Yes. Either the virus is there, or it’s not. The problem is we have about 120 dogs, or, more precisely, clients with dogs per day. And if the owner withholds the information that the dog is coming from a COVID-positive home, you just can’t know. There you have a lady bringing a dog, she doesn’t even tell you it’s not her dog, much less that he lives with her uncle who has COVID. You have no clue.

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have thought to report that.

Those are exceptions, most people try to be sensible and stay at home, if they have COVID. But then, if the animal has any ailment, they follow the existing regulations, which say that the owner is forbidden to leave home, but the animal is not. They send the animal with someone else, and it’s more or less up to them, if they decide to notify us of the COVID or not. We don’t interrogate our clients, perhaps we don’t even have the right to do so. And they can tell us whatever they want anyway. This way we’d have to test everyone right at the door, which just isn’t realistic. So we wear masks and stay careful.

No one speaks about this, though.

As far as I know, they don’t.

So my friend told me how she came here to your clinic with her dog, and next to her sat a guy with a pet snake. What could ail a snake?

Most often it’s a laying problem – not being able to lay eggs. We call that an egg binding. Snake ovaries and oviducts open into one shared orifice called the cloaca, through which they excrete faeces and lay eggs. If they can’t lay eggs properly, it becomes a huge problem – an untreated egg binding would eventually kill the snake. You can’t leave the eggs in the oviduct forever, the female gets gradually exhausted and in the worst cases the eggs might crack, or the oviduct might rupture, which is then fatal. This happens quite often with snakes, turtles and lizards as well.

Then there are the frequent dietary problems, as people like to get an exotic pet without having a clue what it needs to thrive. Most times it’s either a vitamin D or calcium deficiency, shell softening, rickets or rachitis. In short, developmental problems coming from bad nutrition or unbecoming conditions.

We also see quite a lot of injuries, including rather bizarre tortoise accidents, such as when a dog decides to eat the tortoise and it doesn’t go well, or when the tortoise takes a flight from the upstairs and so on. Lizards often get injured in their own tanks, as they’re very nimble and if they get spooked, they can hurt themselves on the run. Snakes get, surprisingly, most often injured by their own uneaten prey, such as a rat. If the owner fails to remove the rat and leaves it in the snake tank for too long, the rat gets so hungry that it starts gnawing on the snake. We’ve had a ball python with its whole back chewed by a rat here.

How does the snake not wake up then?

He has no way to defend himself. He knows how to kill the rat for prey, but he doesn’t know how to fight it.

Roughly how many people, besides you, keeps snakes as pets here in the Czech Republic?

Oh, there’s a lot of them. I have one snake, it’s a ball python, which isn’t even venomous. I, for one, would never get a venomous snake, that’s nothing but an extreme sport in my opinion. If a venomous snake really bites you, that’s it, you’re done for, no chance. I wouldn’t be willing to go through that; people keeping these snakes must be nuts, or they don’t value their lives, I don’t know.

And you can’t even cuddle them. Actually, I don’t believe any snake would be a good cuddle buddy.

But they are– the non-venomous ones, that is. They crawl all over you, they love your body heat and want to snuggle. They don’t mind human touch, all they want is to coil around your arm and rest for a few hours. Our Matylda is cute like that, she’s just such a calm one.

Normal-sized constrictors are a pretty exotic experience. It’s not really the most interesting thing ever, only at times, as snakes spend most of their lives sleeping. Although snakes are not exactly entertaining companions, on the other hand, due to their sleeping habits they don’t require much of your time. However, keeping venomous snakes is absolutely out there. I don’t think anyone keeps exact tabs on them, as people tend not to brag about those, they rather keep it private.

Many snakes should be kept according to regulations, they are protected under the so-called CITES convention. Moreover, owners of venomous snakes should have a permit for dangerous animal ownership, yet I’m afraid many of them do not. You can’t really check on them, as without a search warrant, which are hard and unusual to obtain here, you can’t even enter someone’s house.

If someone says he has twenty of these pets, you can’t tell him those are not pets, but a business stock – he’ll argue twenty is just the right amount for him. There’s no way to check or prove anything, you don’t even know, if he really only has twenty, or it’s actually fifty. No one will ever know that, nor what species they are. In my opinion, good two-thirds of such owners are completely anonymous.

What are some of the most bizarre animals people bring to you?

To this day, my most exciting experience has been meeting a newborn gorilla from the Prague ZOO. He was one of the babies born there and his mother rejected him. We had this baby boy called Tano at our clinic for ten days, kept him in an incubator, bottle-fed him, changed his nappies, rocked him to sleep like a human baby. They’re incredibly beautiful animals with remarkable strength. Tano was just a few days old, and yet he could hang around my colleague’s neck by his arms for a full hour. Baby gorillas have huge eyes and long, grabby arms – they almost look like black furry babies, like strange, tiny humans. But, unlike human babies, they don’t cry at all.

What about privately owned pets?

Well, some people keep panthers, lions, cheetahs and the like.

Aren’t you scared to treat them?

With these animals it’s usually the owner, who knows their beans. Unlike snakes, these cats aren’t chilling around sleeping most of their life. Their owner already knows how to handle them – feeding them every day, they simply have to. Transporting a big cat in a car is no easy task. I have a client who comes here with his panthers – there are several of them, he always has them in a crate and basically for any treatment they have to be sedated. This client lives with his wife somewhere in North Bohemia, I think, and these panthers roam their garden freely like household dogs – behind a three and a half meter tall fence, that is.

Taking such a pet to a clinic must be pricey.

Certainly much less than sponsoring their daily life. Their owners must be shelling out huge amounts of money just for all the meat they eat and whatnot. And they only take their cats to the vet, if it’s absolutely necessary, as it’s logistically difficult and stressful for the animal, which has to be sedated for most procedures anyway. So the vet is only on the agenda if the animal hurts itself, if it needs an X-ray, a CT scan, some more complex surgery and so on. Vaccination, for example, takes place at home.

Recently we’ve had mr. Vémola’s cub in here – yes, I saw Karlos in person. His lioness really is amazing, and mr. Vémola takes great care of her. We were discussing her skeletal development and nutrition. Elza had a small injury in her growth plate, but that shall heal nicely, I believe. She came here when she got injured because I specialize in orthopedics; for other, more complex stuff they take her to other specialized clinics.

So yes, depending on what we’re doing, one visit does cost about five to ten thousand crowns. But in the total amount of money they cost you every year, it’s next to nothing.

They say Czechs often love their pets more than other people, and that they’re willing to pay more for their pets‘ healthcare than for their own. Would you say this is true?

Absolutely. Take the current pandemic, for example – we don’t see any decline in visits at all. Of course we have some measurements in place, such as letting only a small number of clients in our waiting room at once, wearing face masks and so on. But a vet clinic, such as ours, can’t just stop functioning. The animals still get sick, and people keep bringing them to us, just as they keep going shopping for groceries. You can really see that taking care of their pets is a priority for them, and that, unlike other things, they’re not restricting it at all.

I have been in this field for 25 years, and a lot has changed during that time. It took a while for people to get used to the fact that, in contrast to their own treatment, they have to pay at the vet. Before the revolution, veterinary clinics used to be state institutions, run by the local veterinary administration. At that time, not much was paid for the treatment and the quality of care corresponded to that. The owners' approach was also completely different –dogs belonged in the backyard, unwanted kittens were drowned in a barrel of water, rabbits were kept for their meat and rats were nothing but pests.

There was, of course, a sort of a transitional period of about ten years, since 1990, when some people, especially in the rural areas, or those who felt that everything a dog needs is the annual rabies shot given on the street, had trouble accommodating to it, of course. For the longest time we still did mass vaccinations of all dogs in a village at once. It's not much done today, as people have realized it's not the best for them.

Today we perform c-sections on breeding rats, fracture surgeries on rabbits, or provide dogs and cats with the same level of care we would give humans or children. And some owners do perceive them as such, which is great progress and the reason why I love my job.

I get you wanted to be a falconer, why was that?

I had this experience as a little boy, I happened to stumble upon the falconry community. It’s something like watching a dog or a horse, admiring the way they move – both horses and dogs move way better, faster and more efficient than humans. When you take a dog outdoors and he runs around, it’s just beautiful. He’s full of joy, you can watch his movement, this synergy with nature. And birds are something different yet – they soar, they come back to you, seeing a predator fly is incredibly aesthetically pleasing, same as the gallop of a horse. The speed and accuracy of their movement, the unimaginable skill they use to fly, that’s something beyond the realm of our senses. It's like swimming with a dolphin, seeing it move so perfectly in the water, just as a predator moves perfectly in the air. It is absolutely unattainable for us and just looking at it is incredible.

Switching from falconry to veterinary medicine was not a big jump for you, then? You’re just fascinated with animals?

Yes, you could say I went to veterinary school because of the falconry.

Thank you for the interview.

Fast confession:

If you could be any animal in the next life, which would it be?

Probably some kind of bird, preferably a predator.

Is a dog a better patient than a human?

Better in the sense that he’s more grateful, but worse in that he can’t tell me anything.

How many pets do you have at home?

I have two dogs, two cats, a snail, a snake, a tortoise...about eight altogether, I guess.

What did you want to be as a little kid?

A falconer.

What was the most bizarre surgery you had to do?

I remember this tiny little doxie who ate a huge sausage, still in the plastic wrapper. We tried to make him vomit the sausage out, so that we won’t have to do surgery. And it looked as though there’s a teeny-tiny puppy coming out of the wrong end, but it was the sausage, still completely encased in plastic. It looked really nasty.

The rarest species you ever had on your examination table?

A lowland gorilla, from the Prague ZOO. It was a few days old baby boy, we had him in our ICU for ten days and he was amazing.

Your most expensive surgery yet?

A total endoprosthesis for about eighty thousand crowns.

Can animals contract a coronavirus?

Yes, they can; each species has its own coronavirus strain, which has nothing in common with our human COVID-19.

Can humans catch fleas?

Unfortunately, they can and they sometimes do. When it happens, it’s especially hard to get them out of your household. It’s quite a nasty affair, as only about 30 % of fleas live on the human or animal. 70 % remains hidden in the environment, under thresholds and such, which is hard to sanitize. Once they’re in your house, it can be quite a problem.

If you had to choose, would you rather take home a giraffe, a hippo or a horse?

Definitely the horse. We already have two.

Name three qualities dogs share with humans.

They’re lazy, funny and corruptible at times.

Who do you love more, humans or animals? And why?

Gotta go with humans; I’m one of those after all. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals – it’s just that an animal is an animal and a human is a human.

How would you punish people who abuse animals?

Same as those who abuse other people. Harshly.

What’s the vet’s nightmare?

When things go wrong and you can’t figure out why.

Question by the interviewee for the editor: This must be an exciting job, who interesting did you talk to?

It is, I talked to a lot of interesting people, the last of them – and a very bizarre one at that – being Andrej Babiš.
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