Caring for Your Pets if You Have COVID-19

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Rania Gollakner, BS, DVM, MPH; Catherine Barnette, DVM

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a viral respiratory disease of humans that was first discovered in late 2019. The illness is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, which is a new coronavirus not previously identified in humans.

There are many different coronaviruses. In general, each coronavirus affects a different species, causing a unique disease. In humans, coronaviruses typically cause colds and other upper respiratory infections. There are species-specific coronaviruses that affect both dogs and cats. Although all coronaviruses are related, they are all different.

Have any animals tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19?

  • Dogs have tested positive for the virus. These cases are uncommon and appear to occur after exposure to infected human family members. Most of the infected dogs did not show physical signs of illness, although a few dogs have shown concurrent illness, possibly due to the COVID-19 virus.
  • Domesticated cats have also tested positive for the virus. Some of the cats became ill with respiratory and breathing problems, and one cat also exhibited vomiting and diarrhea. Almost all the positive cats had known exposure to humans with COVID-19.
  • Large cats, particularly tigers and lions, have been affected by the virus. An outbreak at the Bronx Zoo in New York State, likely due to an infected zookeeper, resulted in four tigers and three lions with coughs and respiratory problems. Another outbreak in Malayan tigers occurred at Zoo Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Minks have also been affected by COVID-19, including many mink farms in Europe and several in the United States. The minks became ill with breathing problems, and they appear to be particularly susceptible to this new coronavirus.
  • While no pet ferrets or Syrian hamsters have been affected so far, an experimental study showed that both species are susceptible to this virus and can develop respiratory illness.
  • Other species identified as able to carry the virus (but not necessarily becoming ill with it, or spreading the virus to humans) include lynx, cougars, mule deer, white-tailed deer, cows, horses, goats, and sheep.

What does this all mean? Can pets be infected with COVID-19?

Current information indicates that certain animals can be infected by the COVID-19 virus, including dogs and cats. It is important to remember, however, that pets seldom show signs of severe clinical illness (if at all) when they become infected with the virus.

Can other animals infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) spread the infection to humans?

There is evidence of at least two humans becoming infected after exposure to infected mink at farms in the Netherlands, and there is evidence that a similar event happened in Denmark. It is suspected that a human initially infected the mink at the farm, and then the infection spread back to other humans from these infected minks. Currently, this is the only reported incidence of animal to human transmission of SARS-CoV-2. There is also evidence that cats have become infected after exposure to infected mink at farms.

The transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to mink and back to humans raised concerns in Denmark. The Danish Ministry of Health’s State Serum Institute (SSI) investigated a strain of SARS-CoV-2 that may have developed during these mink transmission events. More specifically, the SSI is evaluating if the mutations (changes) in this viral strain could influence future vaccines or antibody treatments.

It is important to note that mutations occur randomly and are not rare events. The concern is that more cases of infection in any living being translates to more opportunity for changes in the virus. Minks are highly susceptible to the virus and farms are at risk for rapid infection spread due to the minks’ proximity to one another. Therefore, the presence of mink farms has the potential to complicate efforts to control the spread and treatment of COVID-19.

There is evidence that cats, ferrets, and Syrian hamsters can spread the virus to other animals within their species, but there is no evidence that they can spread the virus to humans. The most common mode of transmission, by far, is human to human spread.

How should I be prepared for COVID-19?

If you become infected with COVID-19, you should stay home for a period of time to reduce spread of the virus. Therefore, it is important to make sure that you have adequate pet supplies at home to care for your pet while ill.

Be sure to have at least a supply of the following items in case you need to isolate:

  • pet food
  • pet medications (including flea and heartworm preventives)
  • cleaning supplies (in case your pet has accidents indoors)
  • pet toys
  • potty pads or pet turf for your dog to eliminate (if you do not have access to a private yard)
  • contact information for a dog walker or pet sitting service in case you are unable to care for your pet
  • cat litter

Many of these supplies can be ordered online, allowing you to practice the necessary physical distancing during this time.

How should I care for my pets if I have COVID-19?

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, public health officials recommend you restrict contact with pets and other animals as a precaution. Keep your cat indoors, if possible, to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people. Walk dogs on a leash, keeping at least 6 feet (2 meters) from other people and animals, and avoid dog parks or trails.

Ideally, have another member of your household care for your pets until you are feeling better. Just as you would quarantine yourself from the other human members of your home while sick, you should also quarantine yourself from your pets. Isolate yourself and allow a healthy family member to handle your pet’s meals, walks, playtime, and snuggle time.

If you live alone, you may have no choice but to care for your pets yourself. If this is the case, try to limit contact as much as possible. Consider the following steps to reduce the likelihood of spreading infection to your pets:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your pets.
  • Wash your hands before handling your pets’ food and water bowls.
  • Limit close contact with your pets, such as snuggling and kissing.
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue and dispose of the tissues in a hygienic way, where pets cannot access them. Be sure to wash your hands after sneezing or coughing.
  • Do not share food or sleep with your pet in your bed.
  • Wear a mask, if possible, to decrease droplet spread.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

If you are sick with COVID-19 and your pet becomes ill, contact your veterinary clinic for advice and treatment, if needed. Let your veterinarian know you are sick with COVID-19.

Can my pets spread COVID-19 from me to other people?

Currently, there are no reports of household pets transmitting COVID-19 to people. However, we are still learning about this virus, and therefore, the possibility of pet-to-human transmission cannot be ruled out.

Until we learn more, it is best to avoid boarding or re-homing your pet if you are sick with COVID-19. If you are hospitalized and your pets must be cared for by a boarding kennel, day care, dog walker, or pet sitter, inform them that you are ill. This will allow them to take necessary precautions and limit close contact with your pets. If your pet needs veterinary care, and you have current or recent signs of COVID-19, please alert your veterinary team before taking your pet to the clinic so they can take appropriate precautions.

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