Since 2019, COVID-19 has infected millions of humans and a smaller number of animals worldwide. Many people who share their homes with companion animals are concerned that their non-human family members might be susceptible to contracting coronavirus. Mainstream media often focuses on the action steps humans need to take during the pandemic, and many people are left to wonder how they can protect their companion animals from the virus.
What is COVID-19?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines COVID-19 as an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus-2—or Sars-CoV-2 in short. The virus primarily spreads through saliva droplets or discharge from the nose or mouth of an infected person coughing, sneezing, or talking. The coronavirus causes mild to moderate respiratory problems in most people. People who are older or have preexisting conditions are more likely to develop more severe symptoms.
Virologists first observed COVID-19 in December 2020 in Wuhan, China. The epidemic in Wuhan soon turned into a global pandemic through human-to-human transmission. According to the WHO’s ongoing investigation, COVID-19 did not emerge from a wet market in Wuhan, despite spreading on the market initially.
Genetic sequencing shows that SARS-CoV-2 is closely related to coronaviruses circulating in horseshoe bat populations. Scientists believe that the virus is of animal origin and spread from bats to humans through a yet unknown host. During the first phase of the investigation, the WHO identified frozen food made from animals as another potential source of the virus.
Humans who contract COVID-19 can experience mild to severe symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms appear within 2-14 days after being exposed to the virus. The disease symptoms include fever, chills, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, muscle or body aches, fatigue, headache, a loss of taste or smell, sore throat, nausea, congestion or runny nose, vomiting, and diarrhea. The three most common symptoms, according to WHO, are fever, dry cough, and tiredness.
Can your pets get COVID-19 from humans?
Pets, aka companion animals, who interact with infected humans can contract COVID-19. However, the reported number of infected companion animals is significantly lower than the number of infected humans.
Depending on their species, companion animals are more or less likely to catch COVID-19. While dogs, for example, have a low risk of infection, cats are more susceptible.
What animal species can get COVID-19?
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), animals kept as human companions most susceptible to infection with COVID-19 are domestic cats, golden hamsters, ferrets, and New Zealand White rabbits. Other types of hamsters have also been shown to be susceptible to coronavirus.
Golden hamsters and ferrets have been shown to transmit COVID-19 to other members of their species, while New Zealand White rabbits do not spread the disease within their own population. Cats can transmit coronavirus to other cats, and a study has found that cats can even contract the virus from other cats via airborne transmission. Dogs have a low risk of infection and do not infect other dogs.
In addition to New Zealand White rabbits and ferrets, who are also kept as farmed animals, other farmed animals highly susceptible to infection with COVID-19 are American mink and raccoon dogs. Both species spread the disease within their own population, and mink can even infect humans. In late 2020, the emergence of a new COVID-19 mutation from Danish mink farming prompted the country to cull its entire population of up to 17 million farmed mink.
Wild animals highly susceptible to coronavirus are tigers, lions, snow leopards, pumas, Egyptian fruit bats, gorillas, white-tailed deer, marmosets, and macaques. Of those nine species, all but marmosets can also spread the disease to other animals.
Is there a test for COVID-19 in pets?
Depending on your circumstances and location, a veterinarian can test your companion animal for infection with COVID-19. In South Korea, for example, companion cats and dogs can be tested for coronavirus if they have symptoms.
In the U.S., companion animals are not routinely tested for COVID-19. People who want to test an animal need regulatory permission. The CDC, USDA, state public health, and animal health officials monitor the occurrence of COVID-19 in companion animals in some states. Animals tested as part of the surveillance program include cats, dogs, and other small mammals who had contact with an infected human.
Can pets transmit COVID-19 to their owners?
The CDC reports that there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the coronavirus among humans. According to OIE, apart from minks, farmed, wild, or companion animals have not been shown to transmit COVID-19 to humans.
Can animals carry the virus that causes COVID-19 on their skin or fur?
According to the CDC, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through the skin, fur, or hair of companion animals. The CDC advises against treating animals with alcohol or other disinfectants since they might seriously harm them. The coronavirus survives longer on smooth surfaces such as doorknobs, opposed to porous and fibrous materials, such as paper. Since the hairs that make up the pelts of cats and dogs are both porous and fibrous, it is unlikely that people can become infected by touching their fur.
Since other pathogens can be transmitted from animals to humans, people should always wash their hands after touching animals, their waste, food, or other supplies they might have touched.
Is it true that animals, like dogs, cats, and cattle, get different types of coronavirus?
Yes, COVID-19 belongs to the large viral family of coronaviruses that affect different species. Coronaviruses have been found in dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and humans and cause symptoms that primarily affect the respiratory or gastrointestinal system.
Dogs can suffer from Canine coronavirus disease, CCoV, a highly infectious intestinal infection. Cats infected with feline coronaviruses, FCoV, can experience diarrhea; however, the disease is mostly asymptomatic. Cats infected with certain strains of FCoV can develop feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). This infection is usually fatal once it becomes clinical if it remains untreated. Cows can become infected with bovine coronavirus, BCV, a disease that causes diarrhea in calves.
How to protect your pet from coronavirus
You can protect animals from coronavirus by using the same safety and hygienic protocols recommended for humans:
- Wash your hands before and after interacting with companion animals.
- Help them avoid large crowds.
- Limit their contact with people and animals from outside your household.
The CDC recommends keeping animals, including cats indoors, and advises against making animals wear face masks because the masks could harm them. When walking your dog, make sure to keep at least 6 feet distance between your dog, yourself, and other people.
In addition to following the safety protocol for COVID-19, make sure to keep companion animals in good health. Make sure their physical, psychological, and other species-specific needs are met. Like humans, animals are less susceptible to infection when they are free from conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, or diabetes.
What are some of the COVID-19 symptoms in pets?
Animals display similar symptoms as humans when they are infected with COVID-19—or none at all. Dogs, cats, golden hamsters, ferrets, and rabbits are often asymptomatic. Still, they can experience mild symptoms, including coughing, sneezing, runny nose, eye discharge, vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, fever, loss of appetite, and lethargy.
What should you do if your pet has COVID-19?
If you suspect that your companion animal has contracted COVID-19 get in touch with a veterinarian via phone or email to discuss the next steps you need to take. Do not drive to a veterinary practice unannounced since vets also have to ensure that COVID-19 safety protocol is followed within their facilities.
If your companion animal has been tested positive for COVID-19, isolate them from other household members, including other animals. Keep infected animals in your home, unless you have to take them to a medical professional for treatment.
The CDC recommends setting up a separate room for animals infected with COVID-19 to prevent them from infecting other household members. Wear a face mask and gloves when you are near an infected animal or when you touch their food bowl, toys, bedding, toilet, or other objects they interact with. Do not put a mask on the infected animal or treat them with disinfectants.
After cleaning up after your companion animals, discard used gloves and animal waste in a sealed bag. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose after removing your gloves, and wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds. Alternatively, you can clean your hands with hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Clean and disinfect all affected rooms, surfaces, and areas, following the CDC’s guide.
Household members more susceptible and vulnerable to infection with COVID-19, such as elders or people with preexisting conditions, should not be involved in taking care of infected animals. Ensure that the person with the lowest risk of infection living in the household is the one taking care of the infected companion animal.
While caring for your companion animal, make sure to follow the instructions provided by your vet, such as keeping a protocol of their symptoms. Get professional help if the condition of your companion animal worsens or if they develop new symptoms.
What to do if you’re sick
If you have contracted COVID-19, treat companion animals living in your household the same you would treat human household members. Isolate yourself from them and wear a face mask whenever you have to go near them. Before and after interacting with companion animals, make sure to wash your hands. If possible, ask another member of your household to take care of your companion animal while you are in quarantine.
COVID-19 is a zoonotic pathogen that also affects companion animals in some cases. Protect your companion animals and yourself from the virus by following the safety protocols provided by reputable health professionals. The best advice for interacting with animals during the pandemic is to treat animals the same way you treat human friends and family you want to keep healthy and safe.
Caroline is a freelance journalist focused on the intersection of animal advocacy, climate change, and plant-based innovations.