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Since COVID-19 first appeared and upended our lives, a lot has changed. Like many disease-causing bugs, coronavirus has been shown to jump from animals to humans and back to animals again. So what does this mean for our fuzzy friends?
The process of a virus jumping from animals to humans is called zoonosis. “Reverse zoonosis” is the opposite: when a virus jumps from a human to an animal. So what does it take for a virus to spread from animals to humans or vice versa? Are our pets at risk of getting sick, and can they spread the virus to us? Here’s what you need to know about companion animals and the novel coronavirus.
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Can pets get COVID-19?
Early on in the pandemic, two dogs and a cat in Hong Kong tested positive for the virus after their humans got sick. Two cats in the United States also tested positive for the virus. Research showed that the cats were able to infect other cats despite not being symptomatic themselves (Sit, 2020; Mallapaty, 2020; Azad, 2020).
In 2020, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for COVID-19 after showing respiratory symptoms. It is unknown how the tiger became infected in the first place. Since then, several other animals at the zoo have had symptoms and have also tested positive for the virus (Daly, 2020).
In 2021, two gorillas at the San Diego Zoo tested positive for COVID-19 after having mild respiratory symptoms. Zookeepers were surprised as staff that work with wildlife at the zoo took careful precautions to avoid exposing the animals to the virus (NPR, 2021).
There is also evidence that other animals are susceptible to infection, such as ferrets and hamsters (Muñoz-Fontela, 2020). And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states it “is aware of a small number of pets, including cats and dogs, reported to be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19” (CDC, 2021a).
Allergies vs. COVID-19: how to tell the difference
Studies are currently underway to better understand how infection with coronavirus affects animals. And while handwashing is a thing for us humans (and a smart way to avoid transmitting infections) the same isn’t true for your pup. Do not attempt to wash your pets with disinfectants, hand sanitizer, or hydrogen peroxide. If you think your pet is sick, call your vet before taking them into the veterinary office or clinic so they can tell you the best way to proceed.
Can my pet infect me with the novel coronavirus?
There is currently no evidence that pets play a role in spreading coronavirus to humans. Because of this, experts stress “there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare (OAH, 2020).”
That said, there are some precautions to take that may be helpful. The CDC suggests, in general, that you wash your hands after touching animals because they can spread other illnesses to humans. If you are sick with COVID-19, the CDC suggests you separate yourself from pets and let someone else care for them while you’re sick (CDC, 2021b). Do not put masks on pets. It’s best to avoid letting your pet interact with people who are not vaccinated outside your home (CDC, 2021c). This includes avoiding crowded dog parks and keeping cats indoors.
- Azad, A. (2020, April 22). Two cats in New York confirmed to have coronavirus, making them the first pets in the US known to be infected. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/22/health/cats-new-york-coronavirus-trnd/index.html
- Center for Disease Control (CDC). If You Have Animals. (2021a, August 5). Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily–life-coping/animals.html
- Center for Disease Control (CDC).COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions and Answers. (2021b, September 8). Retrieved September 9, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html
- Center for Disease Control (CDC). What You Should Know about COVID-19 and Pets. (2021c, June 29). September 9, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/covid-19/pets.html
- Daly, N. (2020, April 6). Tiger tests positive for coronavirus at Bronx Zoo, first known case in the world. Retrieved April 23, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/tiger-coronavirus-covid19-positive-test-bronx-zoo
- Messenger, A. M., Barnes, A. N., & Gray, G. C. (2014). Reverse Zoonotic Disease Transmission (Zooanthroponosis): A Systematic Review of Seldom-Documented Human Biological Threats to Animals. PLoS ONE, 9(2). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089055. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0089055
- Mallapaty S. (2020). Dogs caught coronavirus from their owners, genetic analysis suggests. Nature, 10.1038/d41586-020-01430-5. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01430-5. Retrieved September 9, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32409763/
- Muñoz-Fontela, C., Dowling, W. E., Funnell, S., Gsell, P. S., Riveros-Balta, A. X., Albrecht, R. A., et al. (2020). Animal models for COVID-19. Nature, 586(7830), 509–515. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2787-6. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32967005/
- NPR: Jones, D. (2021, Jan 11). 2 Gorillas in California Contract the Coronavirus. National Public Radio. Retrieved January 11, 2021 from https://www.npr.org/2021/01/11/955782284/two-gorillas-in-california-contract-the-coronavirus
- Questions and Answers on the COVID-19: OIE – World Organisation for Animal Health. (2020, April 21). Retrieved April 23, 2020, from https://www.oie.int/en/scientific-expertise/specific-information-and-recommendations/questions-and-answers-on-2019novel-coronavirus/
- Sit, T., Brackman, C. J., Ip, S. M., Tam, K., Law, P., To, E., et al. (2020). Infection of dogs with SARS-CoV-2. Nature, 586(7831), 776–778. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2334-5. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32408337/
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.