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COVID-19: Is Your Pet at Risk From the Coronavirus?

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  • Currently, there is no evidence that transmission from pets to people or from pet-to-pet is part of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Misinformation about how the virus spreads has put some pets at risk.
  • Keep pets safe by continuing to care for them. Stay in touch with your veterinarian.
  • While following social distancing guidelines in your community, try to exercise your pet two-to-three times per day.

For more facts and preparedness tips, jump down to the infographic at the bottom of the page. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has made national and international headlines. Millions of cases of the virus, which causes flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath, have been confirmed since the disease was first diagnosed in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, with numbers and death tolls continuing to escalate. 

In March of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the virus a pandemic. As of early November 2021, the virus had claimed the lives of over 5 million people.

Can Pets Contract COVID-19?

As organizations like the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) work to understand the virus and control the spread, questions are popping up about whether we should also be concerned about COVID-19 and our pets.

“There is no evidence that transmission [from pets to people] or from pet-to-pet is part of the current outbreak,” says Dr. Kate E Creevy, veterinarian and Mark Chapman Chair in Shelter Medicine and Companion Animal Health at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine.

There have been a limited number of reports of pets testing positive for the coronavirus worldwide. Leading health authorities and veterinarians with IDEXX Laboratories, a global veterinary diagnostics firm, agree that the virus is primarily transmitted from person-to-person and advise against testing asymptomatic pets. (See their FAQ here.)

Two cats in New York State became the first pets in the U.S. to test positive for the virus. The cats live in separate parts of the state and may have contracted the virus from their owners or outside influences—at least one of the cats spends time outdoors. Though the felines showed mild signs of respiratory illness, both cats are expected to make a full recovery.

A pug in North Carolina is thought to be the first dog to test positive for the virus. The dog was living with a a family that contracted COVID-19, and was tested for the virus as part of a Duke University Study. The family told CNN that the dog had a slight cough for a day or two and was disinterested in food, but explained that the symptoms were not alarming. Researchers do not know whether COVID-19 caused the dog’s symptoms.

A cat in Belgium also tested positive for COVID-19, about a week after its owner started showing symptoms of the virus. The cat did display symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, and shortness of breath, but it is unconfirmed whether the virus caused these symptoms.

Pomeranian in Hong Kong tested “weak positive” for the virus. The owner was diagnosed with COVID-19 and is believed to have passed it along to the dog. The dog exhibited no signs of illness. The Pomeranian died shortly after being released from quarantine, but experts do not believe the coronavirus had any impact on the death of the 17-year-old dog, who had underlying health conditions and outlived the average life expectancy of a Pomeranian.

The South China Post also confirmed that a second dog, a 2-year-old German Shepherd, tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong. The dog belongs to a 30-year-old COVID-19 patient living in the Pok Fu Lam area. The German Shepherd has since been quarantined. Another mixed breed dog from the same household tested negative for the virus, and is also being monitored in quarantine. Neither dog showed signs of illness.

These are isolated cases of human to animal transmission, which does not appear to be common. Health authorities still say there is no evidence that pets can transmit the virus to humans.

Understanding Coronavirus in Pets

Cat in Wuhan China

In addition to the threats posed by COVID-19, dogs and cats can be diagnosed with other coronaviruses.

Coronavirus is part of a family of viruses that can cause intestinal and respiratory infections, including canine respiratory disease (also known as kennel cough) and often goes hand-in-hand with other viruses, including distemper, Bordetella, and influenza.

Creevy notes that coronavirus symptoms in pets often include mild diarrhea that gets better on its own. Some animals might not show signs of illness at all. 

In cats, it can lead to a more aggressive and deadly form of the virus, known as Feline Infectious Peritonitis or FIP, which includes symptoms ranging from fever and weight loss to liver disease. Less than 1 percent of cats infected with the feline coronavirus develop FIP.

To prevent the spread of a common coronavirus infection pet parents should:

  • Vaccinate against preventable infections such as distemper, Bordetella and influenza
  • Protect pets from parasites like heartworms and fleas
  • Limit contact with ill dogs and cats 

Your veterinarian can recommend appropriate vaccinations for your pet.

“There is a vaccine for common intestinal coronavirus, but it’s seldom recommended [because] the illness is so mild—or undetectable—in most dogs and cats,” Creevy says. “It’s been hard to prove that the vaccine is beneficial.”  

COVID-19: Still Potentially Dangerous for Pets

Man sits with dog in Beijing

Although pets cannot pass on the new coronavirus to their owners, rampant misinformation about the spread of the virus has led to a dire situation for dogs and cats in China.  

Fears that pets can spread the coronavirus has led to demands that residents get rid of their pets and threats of mass euthanasia, according to an article in the Daily Mail. Humane Society International published photos of 11 abandoned puppies left without food, water, or shelter amid reports that coronavirus in dogs could be a problem. Rescue groups saved the puppies.

In China, pets are at risk for another reason. NBC News reported that the coronavirus outbreak led residents to flee the city of Wuhan, leaving their pets behind. The city has been on lockdown since January 23 in hopes of preventing the spread of the virus, which means left-behind pets have been on their own without food or water for weeks. 

Although there is no evidence that animal-to-human transmission of COVID-19 is possible, the Associated Press cited a source from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department in Hong Kong who said, “…Under no circumstances should [pet owners] abandon their pets.”

Local rescue groups estimate there could be up to 30,000 animals in the city with no one to care for them. Shelter volunteers are working to save as many companion animals as possible, according to the article.

Can Face Masks for Dogs Really Help?

Pet owners concerned about protecting their pets from the Wuhan coronavirus have been purchasing face masks for their dogs. One manufacturer told USA TODAY that sales of the masks have spiked up to 400 percent since the outbreak. 

Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests holding off on purchasing protective gear for dogs and cats. “The effectiveness of face masks for healthy people is a bit unclear and it’s even less clear for dogs,” he says. “At this time, there’s no reason to believe face masks are necessary for dogs.”

Precautions for Pet Owners 

Woman staying home with dog

Although pets are unlikely to transmit COVID-19 to their owners, they can be infected with the virus. Therefore, Creevy recommends caution and suggests the following advice:

  • Keep pets well-fed and vaccinated to bolster their immune systems
  • Wash your hands after contact with animals
  • Avoid interacting with ill animals 
  • Steer clear of areas that have feces from other animals 

“Dealing with emerging viruses is always difficult, because when a new virus emerges, we cannot predict its behavior,” she says. “It’s ok to pay attention to emerging news but it’s even more important for pet owners to understand the things that we already know [about] the common coronavirus in pets.”  

Additionally, if you or anyone in your home is infected with COVID-19, you should limit your contact with your pets, to avoid spreading the disease to them. If possible, have an uninfected member of your family feed and care for your pet while you are ill. (See CDC information on COVID-19 and Pets here.)

COVID-19 and Pet Preparedness

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to quarantines and closures that could make it harder to get pet supplies. Dr. Dana Varble, chief veterinary officer for the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC), recommends preparing by keeping a supply of food, treats, medications, and other essentials on hand as part of your emergency preparedness efforts.

“We often take for granted that we can just run to the store but that might not be possible,” Varble says.

You should make a plan that includes directives for your pet’s care if you get sick or need hospitalization. Varble advises double checking that pets are up to date on all of their vaccines in case boarding is required.

“There is no reason to panic, you just want to be prepared and your pets should always be included in your emergency preparedness planning,” she says.

Advice for Keeping Pets Enriched at Home

During this time of uncertainty, many pet parents will be spending more time at home with their dogs and cats. And it’s important to keep pets enriched, entertained, and busy if regular outings or playdates are postponed.

“Try to get them exercise 2-3 times per day if possible,” says Wallace. “Use your extra time together to teach your pets some new tricks. If you have a backyard your dog can play in, use it.”

See Also: The Best Pet Toys for At-Home Play

Don’t let fears you may be feeling prevent you from spending quality time with your four-legged companion.

“Your pet likely senses your stress about the pandemic and will in turn feel stressed,” says Wallace. “Exercise, food, some kind of regularity in their daily schedule, exercise and the love of their human should help reduce their anxiety—and yours too.”

Infographic: The Coronavirus and Pets

Coronavirus Infographic

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