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 that has not previously been 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?
There have been several cases of animals have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Dogs have tested positive for the virus; these cases are uncommon and appear to occur after exposure to infected human family members. While a few dogs have shown concurrent illness possibly due to the COVID-19 virus, most of the infected dogs did not show physical signs of illness.
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 also been affected by the virus. An outbreak at the Bronx Zoo in New York State, likely due to an infected zookeeper, resulted in 4 tigers and 3 lions with coughs and respiratory problems. Another outbreak in Malayan tigers occurred at Zoo Knoxville, Tennessee.
Mink have also been affected by COVID-19, including many mink farms in Europe and several in the United States. The mink 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.
At this time (November 2020), no other domesticated animals have been diagnosed with this virus. However, interaction with any species should be avoided if you are ill or suspect you are ill with COVID-19.
What does this all mean? Can pets be infected with COVID-19?
Current information (as of November 2020) indicates that certain animals can be infected by the COVID-19 virus, but it appears to be an infrequent occurrence
In total, across the globe, few dogs and cats have tested positive in comparison to humans. Keep in mind that to date, there are millions of human cases of COVID-19 worldwide and fewer than 100 cats and dogs have tested positive, many of which have not exhibited signs or become ill.
Can other animals infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) spread the infection to humans?
There was evidence of at least two humans becoming infected after exposure to infected mink at farms in the Netherlands. There was also 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 has raised concerns in Denmark. The Danish Ministry of Health’s State Serum Institute (SSI) is investigating 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 have an effect on future vaccines or antibody treatments.
It is important to note that mutations occur randomly and are not rare events. Rather, the overall concern is that more cases of infection in any living being translates to more opportunity for changes in the virus. Mink are highly susceptible to the virus and farms are at risk for rapid infection spread due to mink 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 will be unable to leave your home for a period of several weeks. Therefore, it is important to make sure that you have an accessible supply of pet supplies at home so that you can care for your pet while ill.
Also, if you contract COVID-19, you will likely need to remain quarantined on your property. This may make caring for dogs a bit more challenging. If you have a private yard, you can walk your dog in this area. If you do not have a private yard, you might need to train your dog to eliminate indoors. This may prove to be challenging, as once a dog is house trained, he is usually very reluctant to eliminate indoors. If attempting to train your pet to eliminate indoors, use potty pads, pet turf, pet artificial grass trays, or another surface for elimination. Train your dog to eliminate on that surface just as you did when you housetrained him as a puppy by using treats and positive reinforcement.
It may help to put your dog’s leash on before walking him to this new elimination area, to reinforce the idea that this is his new elimination area.
It may be necessary instead to hire a dog walker, pet sitter, or find other alternate care for your pet. The dog walker should be well-versed on how to handle your dog while protecting themselves and understand how to practice physical distancing with you during the transfer. See the handouts “Tips for Dog Walkers During the COVID-19 Pandemic” and “Tips for Pet Sitters During the COVID-19 Pandemic” for ways that dog walkers and pet sitters can protect themselves—and you—while caring for your pets.
Be sure to have at least a one-month supply of the following items:
- 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 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 until more information is known about the virus. Keep your cat indoors if possible, to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people. Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining 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 to a single bedroom/bathroom and allow a healthy family member to handle your pet’s meals, walks, playtime, and snuggle time.
"Ideally, have another member of your household care for your pets until you are feeling better."
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—even a cloth mask—to decrease droplet spread.
- clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
If you are sick with COVID-19 and your pet becomes ill, do not take your pet to your veterinary clinic yourself. Call your veterinarian and let them know are you sick with COVID-19. Some clinics are offering telemedicine or have other contingency plans in place for seeing sick pets from COVID-19 positive households (see handouts "Telehealth and What it Means", "Telemedicine and How it Works", and "Preparing for Your Telemedicine Appointment" for more information).
Based on recommendations from the CDC, if you are not ill with COVID-19, you should follow these basic guidelines:
- treat your pets the same as is recommended for humans: do not allow your pets to interact with animals or people outside the household.
- keep cats indoors when possible.
- walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet (2 meters) from other people and animals.
- avoid gathering at parks or other public places with other people and pets.
- adhere to local regulations regarding park and trail closures.
Can my pets spread COVID-19 from me to other people?
At this time, 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 rehoming 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 in advance of taking your pet to the clinic so that they can take appropriate precautions.