ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – There have been a few stories recently reported in the news about human to animal transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This has raised concerns with some pet owners about how to properly care for and safely interact with their pets during this time of social distancing and stay-at-home quarantines. The Army Public Health Center has updated its COVID-19 website with a number of pet-related COVID-19 frequently asked questions.
In early April, a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. This was the first case of an animal testing positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. and public health officials presume this large cat became mildly sick after being exposed to a zoo employee who was actively shedding virus. Two dogs and one cat in Hong Kong, one cat in Belgium, and more recently, two cats in New York were reported to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) after testing positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
“In all cases, it is believed that the virus was transmitted to the animals after close contact with a COVID-19 positive human and animals showed very mild signs of disease,” said Lt. Col. Sara Mullaney, an APHC veterinarian and division chief for Veterinary One Health, which works with other health professionals on health education, and the prevention and surveillance of animal, zoonotic, and foodborne diseases. “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 U.S.”
Studies are underway to investigate human to animal transmission in multiple animal species, said Col. Derron A. Alves, deputy director of APHC’s Veterinary Services and Public Health Sanitation Directorate. However, most of the studies so far have involved experimental infection of animals with SARS-CoV-2 that don’t always reflect natural conditions, so more studies are needed to better understand the infectious behavior of the virus between species under normal settings.
“There are other types of coronaviruses that can make pets sick, like canine and feline coronaviruses,” said Alves. “These relatively older viruses have been researched extensively, and we know they cannot infect people and are not related to the coronavirus responsible for the current COVID-19 outbreak. Army Veterinary Services is staying up to date to ensure personnel are fully informed on the latest data.”
These recent cases of cats likely contracting the virus from an infected human, though rare, have reinforced the importance of following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that people who are sick with COVID-19 restrict animal contact, said Mullaney.
“Yes, the bond between people and their pets, particularly in lowering stress, increasing fitness, and bringing happiness is well documented and undeniable,” said Mullaney. “We also recognize that for many, the human-pet relationship may be more comforting now especially during the COVID-19 pandemic in which physical distancing has proven helpful in the overall public health disease transmission mitigation strategy. However, in an abundance of precaution, people who are sick with COVID-19 should practice physical distancing of six feet from other people and pets.”
In addition, because animals can spread other diseases to humans, it is ALWAYS a good idea to practice healthy habits around pets and other animals, such as washing one’s hands before and after feeding or petting and maintaining good hygiene, said Mullaney. These healthy habits are especially important in immunocompromised or ill individuals most susceptible to contracting other diseases.
Mullaney said continuing veterinary medical care for pets, even during this pandemic, is especially important.
“Most states have deemed veterinary practices ‘essential business’, so limited veterinary services should still be available for your pet,” said Mullaney. “Many veterinary practices are implementing social distancing and curbside procedures during this time. It’s best to call ahead to see what procedures your veterinary clinic is following to minimize human-to-human transmission, and what veterinary services are being offered.”
Owners who are sick with COVID-19 should not take their pet to the veterinary clinic themselves. They should find an alternate caregiver to take the pet in or contact their veterinarian to see what telemedicine options or alternate plans might be available, said Mullaney.
“It’s important to try to identify an individual who is willing and able to care for your animals if you contract COVID-19 or have any other health emergency,” said Mullaney.
Animal owners should have an emergency kit prepared, with at least two weeks’ supply of food and medications, as well as copies of all animals’ medical records. Animals should be properly identified with ID tags, microchips, brands, and rabies/license tags as applicable. In the event your animal needs to be transported, the appropriate crates/carriers and/or trailers should be identified and available.
“You should also have a list of people authorized to make medical decisions about your animals, if different from the caregiver,” said Mullaney. “Be sure to communicate your instructions for different levels of emergency medical care your animals may need in your absence. If you cannot identify an individual to care for your animals, there may be boarding facilities, local animal shelters or animal control facilities that can provide temporary emergency sheltering. There is no reason at this time to permanently surrender pets to animal shelters out of concern for COVID-19.”
Mullaney says social distancing and stay-at-home orders doesn’t mean leave out exercise, which is good for human and pet health.
“Keep up your walking routine, but ensure you following physical distancing for your dog, just as you would for yourself,” said Mullaney. “It’s also best to avoid dog parks and other public places where a large number of dogs and people gather.”
For cat owners, the CDC recommends that cats be kept indoors when possible to prevent their interaction with other animals or people. Keeping cats indoors is also good practice regardless of COVID-19 to minimize their risk of injury or exposure to standard feline diseases.
Information regarding COVID-19 is being rapidly produced and disseminated as efforts continue around the world to understand all aspects of this virus and the disease it causes, said Mullaney. All that information can become overwhelming and even misleading at times so it’s important to stay tuned to reputable sources such as the CDC, U.S. Department of Agriculture and American Veterinary Medical Association to help navigate topics related to animals and pets. Those organizations bring together experts from across the spectrum to carefully weigh the scientific evidence and how to apply it practically for the continued safety and welfare of animals and people. Installation veterinarians can also be a source of information for pet owners.