Here are answers to some common questions that shelters might be facing from their volunteers, staff and the public right now. Feel free to copy and paste if you wish. The situation is changing rapidly and this information will be updated as needed. [Last updated March 31, 2020.]
People are understandably worried about all kinds of things right now, including the role of pets in the spread of the COVID-19 virus and whether pets are at risk. On this front, at least, most of the information so far has been reassuring.
- Can my pet catch COVID-19?
This is getting a little more complicated…
Two asymptomatic dogs in Hong Kong, exposed to COVID-19-infected owners, have tested positive so far. It’s not known how many pets were tested there. One of the positive dogs was geriatric and died two days after release from quarantine; the death was not thought to be COVID-19 related.
More recently, an exposed cat in Belgium tested positive . This raises more questions because the cat had respiratory signs, vomiting and diarrhea, all consistent with symptomatic infection. Dr. Scott Weese has the following comments about this cat :
- This is not a surprising development;
- It does not create new concerns because it was expected to occur at some point;
- There is still presumed low risk for transmission to and from pets;
- The most important risk remains human-to-human transmission.
Thousands of dogs and cat samples tested by IDEXX laboratories tested negative. (Great job, IDEXX, for generating and reporting this data so quickly.) Dr. Scott Weese has pointed out (March 20 Worms and Germs blog) that this might not mean very much because those are presumably non-exposed animals.
During the SARS outbreak, a group of ferrets were experimentally infected and became sick with that virus. A new study has found that they are also able to be infected with COVID-19. This infection made the ferrets sick and they were able to transmit it to other ferrets. Dr. Weese’s recommendations:
- COVID-infected people should stay away from their ferrets
- Ferrets that have clinical signs (fever, decreased activity and cough) should be isolated from people and other ferrets
2. I’m confused, this virus CAME from an animal. Can’t it just go back and forth from animals to people?
This IS confusing, on the surface. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease called COVID-19 is closely related to a bat coronavirus and has made the jump to humans through mutation. It’s quite unusual for these viruses to jump species and it takes special circumstances, such as occurred in the wet food market in Wuhan.
Coronaviruses that have jumped from one species to another in the past have typically mutated to the point that they can’t infect the original species. So the COVID-19 virus is now a human virus.
4. Don’t pet animals have coronaviruses too?
Coronaviruses are quite a large a family of viruses and each one is different. Cats have a coronavirus that can cause diarrhea and, less commonly, FIP. Dogs have an enteric coronavirus and a respiratory coronavirus. These viruses are different in terms of the species they infect and the diseases they cause.
5. Could the virus be transmitted to people from pet animals’ coats?
There is no evidence so far suggesting any kind of direct transmission from pets to people. There’s a small and so far unproven possibility that a dog or cat whose owner is infected could have virus on the coat, and that this could be carried to another person on their hands, in the same way that could happen if you touched a contaminated surface or object.
Important points about this are:
- Authorities are unanimous so far that the main way this infection is spread is through aerosol droplets when infected people cough.
- Nobody knows yet what exact role contaminated doorknobs and other surfaces play, but so far this is not thought to be a major route of transmission. Hard shiny surfaces that are touched frequently, like door knobs, are considered more of of a risk than porous surfaces and hair coats.
- It makes a lot of sense to be very careful about hand-washing before and after touching an animal that has been exposed to the virus, in the same way that you would be after touching contaminated surfaces or objects. Hand-washing should be a routine practice after handling animals in any event. It also makes sense to avoid snuggling and hugging a known exposed animal.
We have to be careful and prudent about disease transmission, of course, but also about how we use precious and currently limited resources like gowns, gloves and masks. These are essential for front-line medical workers and essential to prevent transmission from infected people to uninfected people.
5. Could ferrets spread infection to people?
Given that this recent study showed that ferrets can transmit the infection to each other, we should assume that infected ferrets could spread it to people, until or unless proven otherwise. It’s pretty easy to manage that risk. It’s also important to remember that we still need to stay focused on the major risk (by far), which is human-to-human infection.
6. Can my pet transmit COVID-19 to other animals?
Ferrets were experimentally able to transmit the virus to other ferrets. There’s no evidence so far of transmission between other animals but it makes sense to take reasonable precautions because there’s a lot we don’t know.
Blog post by Dr. Linda Jacobson BVSc MMedVet PhD
- Questions and Answers on the 2019 Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), OIE World Organisation for Animal Health, https://www.oie.int/en/scientific-expertise/specific-information-and-recommendations/questions-and-answers-on-2019novel-coronavirus/
- The New Coronavirus and Companion Animals – Advice for WSAVA Members (updated March 7), World Small Animal Veterinary Association, https://wsava.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/COVID-19_WSAVA-Advisory-Document-Mar-9-2020.pdf
- Leading Veterinary Diagnostic Company Sees No COVID-19 Cases in Pets, IDEXX Laboratories March 13, 2020, https://www.idexx.com/en/about-idexx/news/no-covid-19-cases-pets/
- Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19), World Health Organization, https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses
- Coronavirus Disease 2019: How it Spreads, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/transmission.html
- Animals and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/animals.html
- COVID-19 and potential animal hosts, Worms & Germs. https://www.wormsandgermsblog.com/2020/02/articles/animals/cats/covid-2-and-potential-animal-hosts/
- SARS virus infection of cats and ferrets. https://www.nature.com/articles/425915a
- Can pets contract coronavirus from humans or vice versa? https://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/news/can-pets-contract-coronavirus-humans-or-vice-versa
- Coronaviruses at the human-animal interface https://www.cahss.ca/media/uploads/CEZD/documents/20-02-18_16-24/Infosheet_-_Coronaviruses_at_the_Human-Animal_Interface.pdf
- COVID-19 virus in a cat: Belgium https://www.wormsandgermsblog.com/2020/03/articles/animals/cats/covid-19-in-a-cat-belgium/