Although health experts have repeatedly assured the public that people and pets can’t pass the novel coronavirus to one another, the news that a Bronx Zoo tiger tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week has given many dog and cat owners pause.
Google GOOGL, -0.03% GOOG, +0.09% searches for “can domestic cats get coronavirus” spiked 950% in the past week, after the NYC zoo revealed that a 4-year-old tiger tested positive for the novel coronavirus after developing a dry cough. Three more tigers and three lions share the same symptoms, but they are all expected to recover. It is believed that the big cats were infected by a person caring for them who wasn’t showing symptoms.
(And lest you think that animals are clawing tests away from humans who need them at a time when the United States is suffering a COVID-19 testing shortage, the Bronx Zoo’s veterinarian explained in a statement that the tiger was tested “in a veterinary school laboratory and is not the same test as is used for people.”)
The sick tiger refueled fears over whether people sick with the virus that’s sickened more than 1.5 million and killed almost 100,000 around the world could pass the illness onto their four-legged friends, or that they could catch the virus from them in turn.
So MarketWatch spoke with Dr. John Howe, the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and pulled the CDC and World Health Organization’s latest guidelines to lay out everything that is known about the relationship between pets and the coronavirus so far.
Can you get COVID-19 from your pet, or someone else’s pet?
“The answer at this point is no,” Howe said. Not only has the CDC not received any reports of pets becoming sick with COVID-19 in the U.S., but it also states on its coronavirus and pets page that, “At this time, there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19 to people or that they might be a source of infection in the United States.” What’s more, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead, said in a recent press briefing that “we don’t believe that [pets are] playing a role in transmission.”
But what about people spreading the virus to their pets? Didn’t two dogs in Hong Kong get it?
It’s unlikely. Thousands of dogs and cats in 17 countries have been tested by IDEXX Laboratories Inc. IDXX, +1.51%, and none has come up positive for the virus. The CDC’s official stance remains that, “At this time there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can become sick with or spread COVID-19.”
But there is still much that we don’t know about this new virus, and there have indeed been a handful of isolated sick animal cases, including two dogs in Hong Kong, a cat in Belgium and the Bronx Zoo tiger. That’s why the World Health Organization is actively investigating the human transmission of COVID-19 to animals. Kerkhove acknowledged, “we think that [animals] may be able to be infected from an infected person.”
And as for the much-discussed cases of the two dogs in Hong Kong, Howe explained that these animals showed the presence of the virus, but otherwise had no clinical symptoms and were not ill. They also later tested negative. What’s more, the test that was used in these cases could detect the presence of just a particle of the virus. “To find pieces of the virus in stomach contents or stool does not mean [the dogs] are infected,” he said.
But if a tiger got it, couldn’t my cat?
“You can’t equate tigers and lions — even though, yes, they are in the cat family — with domestic cats. Different viruses affect different animals differently,” Howe said. “So in fact, a large cat getting infected with coronavirus from a zoo worker does not mean domestic cats can spread it or catch it.”
So what should a pet owner do if they contract COVID-19?
Howe and other health experts agree that you should play it safe and have minimal or no contact with your pet, especially because there are still a lot of unknowns about this new coronavirus. That means no cuddling, petting, kissing or sharing food with your fur baby, unfortunately. They also shouldn’t lick you. Keep the pet out of the room that you are recovering in, if possible, and have a family member take care of your critter while you rest up, including feeding, bathing and walking it. “Better yet, see if you can have a friend or neighbor who could take your pet out of the household,” Howe said.
If you live alone and have to take care of your pet yourself while sick, try to limit contact as much as possible. Wear a face mask or face covering when you’re around your animal, and wash your hands before and after you handle them.
Should your pet wear a mask or booties for protection?
While pictures of dogs wearing masks over their noses have spread on social media, Howe said “this is a total waste of money, a total waste of time. It’s not a valid concern.” The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads mostly from person to person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing and talking.
Should you get your pet tested for COVID-19?
No, the CDC is not recommending tests for pets at this time.
What precautions should you take if you walk a dog or foster a pet that belongs to someone sick with COVID-19?
Howe explained that while the virus is easy to pick up off of smooth surfaces such as countertops and door knobs, dog and cat fur is more porous and traps the virus. This makes it difficult to pick up from an animal’s coat. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with bathing [the animal] when it gets in your home, or before,” he said. “There’s all kinds of great disinfectant shampoos for dogs.” And basic hygiene, such as washing your hands before and after you handle a pet — and, sorry animal lovers, but no kissing your pet on the mouth — is key to prevent picking up any kind of germ from an animal, let alone COVID-19.
“A dog’s mouth is not as clean and sterile like some people think,” he said. “When you think about all of the things a dog licks … it’s just not a good idea.”
You’re fostering a sick friend’s pet. Should you quarantine it from your own pets? Could pets spread it to other pets?
At this point, “we don’t believe so,” Howe said. Of course, if the animals don’t know each other, or aren’t friendly with each other, you would want to introduce them gradually anyway. That could include socialization techniques such as supervised introductions, crating, and making sure you’re not praising or fawning one animal over another. The Humane Society offers these tips for introducing new dogs and new cats into multi-pet households.
What’s the proper social distancing etiquette with pets?
Keep six feet away from other people. Wear face masks in public. Avoid crowds, and don’t congregate in tight spaces. Humans have been practicing these social distancing measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus for weeks now. And pet owners need to make sure that their animals follow these new guidelines, too. So that means keeping your dog leashed and six feet away from other dogs and other people while you’re on a walk; avoiding dog parks and dog runs where people and their pets may congregate (if your city hasn’t already closed them); and politely discouraging anyone from petting your pupper.
“You’re not letting your dog go up and sniff other dogs or people,” Howe explained. “You don’t know if somebody recently coughed on that dog.” While the evidence so far suggests that it’s extremely unlikely you would pick up the coronavirus from an animal’s coat, health experts are still advising everyone to keep their distance out of an abundance of caution. “Trying to maintain social distancing is always a good thing,” he said. “And if someone pets your dog on a walk, it may be good to bathe your dog when you get home.”
And if you generally let your cat out, now is the time to keep kitty indoors, just to stay on the safe side.
What if your pet gets sick with something else while you’re in quarantine?
While many veterinary offices are only seeing urgent care or emergency cases at the moment, you still need to call a vet if your pet shows symptoms such as: an extreme change in eating habits; excessive thirst; vomiting frequently or vomiting blood; unusual stool; becoming more sluggish than usual; sudden weight loss; cloudy or red eyes; as well as emergency situations such as possibly ingesting poison, difficulty breathing, seizures, open wounds or broken bones.
“Animals are still getting sick, and vets are still seeing animals every day,” Howe said. Call your local vet and explain what’s going on, and they can help determine if a pet should be brought in or not. Some practices may ask the pet owner to drive up to the clinic, where someone will then talk to the owner in the car, and possibly bring the pet into the clinic for care while the owner waits outside or waits at home.
“If an animal gets sick, you can probably be 99.99% sure it will be anything but coronavirus,” Howe added.
People have been warned about over-indulging in comforting junk food or alcohol while sheltering in place. Are there similar health concerns for pets?
Anecdotally, many people have reported that their pets seem thrilled to bits that they are spending so much more time at home with them. But could that be too much of a good thing? Yes, Howe says — especially if you and your animal companion are not getting as much exercise as you used to because you’re staying inside. Maybe you’re taking the dog on fewer walks, or cutting those walks short. Dog runs are now out of the question. And as for cats, maybe you’re lavishing them with too many treats?
“Unfortunately, so many pets in America are already obese, and if they don’t get the exercise they were used to getting before, it’s going to get worse,” Howe said. He suggests checking with your veterinarian and putting your pet on a diet; reduce their portion sizes, especially if they’re laying around more than they were before. “And it’s important to exercise them as much as possible,” he said. Apart from maintaining their weight, the lack of stimulation and activity from staying in can cause many dogs to act out and destroy your house. “Any way that you can take them for a walk, even if it’s just walking around the house — make sure they get some exercise,” he said.
For more information about taking care of your pets during the pandemic, check out the following resources:
American Veterinary Medical Association:avma.org
The Centers for Disease Control:cdc.gov/coronavirus