- Holly Leake
Can My Dog/ Cat Get Coronavirus?
Updated: May 14, 2020
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in December 2019, there has been so much panic and worry concerning, not just our own health, but the health of our pets also. With so many mixed messages and news media creating fear through sensationalised headlines, it’s very difficult to know what is real. The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially announced the COVID-19 as a global pandemic in early March 2020. Since then, our lives changed forever.
The world has practically shut down and we are all at home with our pets, worrying when this is going to end, so things can go back to normal. Social media is now littered with photos of pets wearing masks and everyone is wondering what precautions they should take to keep their families and pets safe. Many are even abandoning their pets or leaving them at shelters, for fear they will contract the virus from them.
Since this is a topic on every pet owner’s minds right now, I thought it would be beneficial to address this question in my blog. To start us off, we need to understand what the Coronavirus is, as there is much confusion. I’m afraid it gets very scientific, however, I feel it’s important to understand the mechanisms behind the virus and the tests used to diagnose it, so bear with me. Remember, knowledge is power.
What is the Coronavirus?
The Coronavirus is a family of viruses that cause disease in animals, 7 of which have been known to jump from animals to humans. Jessica Peralta at Dogs Naturally explains, that there are 4 main sub-groups of coronaviruses and these are alpha, beta, gamma and delta and the coronavirus is named for their crown-like spikes on their surface.
The Coronavirus is officially known as SARS—CoV-2, which is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The virus was called SARS-CoV-2 because it is genetically related to the coronavirus responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2002- 2003, however the two viruses are different. Another coronavirus emerged in 2012 and this was called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Thankfully, based on the World Health Organisation’s estimations, the coronavirus is less deadly than other similar diseases such as SARS, MERS and Ebola, nevertheless, this particular coronavirus is more contagious.
I struggled to get my head round this at first but stick with me. COVID-19 is not an alternative name for the coronavirus and the terms are not interchangeable. COVID-19 is the name of the disease that occurs as a result of the coronavirus infection. Therefore, people have SARS-CoV-2 (the virus), which leads to the development of COVID-19 (the disease) as a result of that infection. Thus, there is no COVID-19 virus, there is only the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19.
So, when people are tested, they don’t test positive for the COVID-19, they are tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and then they are diagnosed with COVID-19 based on their symptoms and the test result. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have decided not to use the term SARS because they feel it will cause more fear. They state, “From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003."
Despite the clear difference between the terms, the media and news are using the terms interchangeably, which is very confusing to the public and I am sure you will now spot many errors in headlines and on social media.
What Is the Origin of the Coronavirus?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding this question and many origins have been suggested including Chinese Horseshoe bats, pangolins and stray dogs. What we do know, is that the epicentre of the coronavirus, or the official term SARS-CoV-19, outbreak was Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Many of the first patients that contracted the disease in this location, had a link to a local seafood market and a large live animal market, which would suggest an animal to human spread. However, a large number of patients in this location, including the very first patient infected, had not been exposed to any of these animal markets, suggesting a human to human spread.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “sequenced virus obtained from U.S. patients is similar to that found in China originally, which suggests a single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir”. However, the exact mechanism of evolution of the virus is currently unknown.
There are several hypotheses at the moment. It is theorised that the virus could have evolved to its current pathogenicity, through natural section in a non-human host and jumping to humans. However, there are no documented cases of transmission of the coronavirus from bats to humans.
Another theory is that a non-pathogenic version of the virus would have jumped from an animal host to humans and then evolved within humans to its current pathogenic state. Most experts believe that the virus likely originated from Chinese horseshoe bats, due to the fact that bats carry many zoonotic viruses such as Rabies, Ebola and HIV and they were sold at the animal market in China. They then believe the virus jumped to another intermediate species that is in close contact with humans, such as the pangolin. The pangolin is a scaly mammal that is one of the most illegally trafficked animals in the world. Pangolins have been known to carry coronaviruses and they were also sold in the live animal meat market in Wuhan, China.
Bats are also known to harbour coronaviruses and according to an article in the Nature magazine, the SARS-CoV-19 has 96.2% sequence identity to a bat coronavirus, however, it seems the animal reservoir has not been fully determined.
Therefore, the true origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still unconfirmed and it may be years before we know the truth. (for more information on this, please see the link in the references below.)
Can Dogs, Cats and Other Animals Get Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)? The cases so far.
Now before you panic, please read this in full so you have all the information. SARS-CoV-2 is what’s known as a zoonotic disease, which means a disease that is transmissible from animals to humans, such as Lyme disease and Rabies. According to the Jackson Ryan, Coronavirus and Pets (2020), many species are susceptible to the virus because they all contain a protein known as angiotensin-converting enzyme or ACE2.
The virus is covered in spiky hooks or projections that are able to latch onto ACE2 proteins on the surface of animal cells. These coronavirus spikes then lock into place and hijack the cell. Researchers have examined the genes of species, using computer databases and modelling, in order to determine if the ACE2 protein in the species cells can be used by SARS-CoV-2.
On March 19th, a study was published in the journal of Microbes and Infection, demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 could grab onto the ACE2 receptor of many different species, including bats, pigs and civet cats. It is also predicted that it may also be able to do this in sheep, horse, goats, lynx, pigeons and pangolins. There have been a few cases of SARS-CoV-2 in domestic pets, so in order to establish the severity of the virus in animals, it’s helpful to consider each case of coronavirus so far as well as the circumstances surrounding them.
February 27th Hong Kong
On February 27th Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) reported that a Pomeranian dog in Hong Kong had tested weak positive for SARS-CoV-2 using a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test. This dog had been quarantined with his owner, who tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, PCR testing was repeated on samples collected February 28th, March 2nd, 5th, and 9th with continued “weak positive” results on nasal cavity sample, whereas rectal and fecal swabs remained negative for the virus.
The dog was released to his owners on the 12th of March after RT-PCR tests conducting on nasal swabs were negative. This dog never showed any clinical signs associated with the coronavirus. It is believed that the Pomeranian caught the virus from their infected owners. Sadly, the dog died 3 days after release, however, the dog was 17 years old and had other ongoing health issues so it’s not believed that his death was a result of the virus.
March 18th-25th Hong Kong
On March 18th, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) reported that a 2-year-old German Shepherd, whose owner had tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2, also tested positive for the virus using the RT-PCR Test. This dog also had positive results of tests run on samples collected March 19th and 20th, and then negative results for 10 consecutive days.
On March 25th, the AFCD reported that virus was isolated from one or more samples collected from the German Shepherd Dog, and on April 3rd, reported that the dog developed neutralizing antibodies to the virus. (American Veterinary Medical Association 2020). Another mixed breed dog in the same house, consistently tested negative for SARS-CoV-2. Neither of these dogs displayed symptoms associated with respiratory disease during their quarantine and the German Shepherd made a full recovery and both were returned to their owner safely.
March Third Week Belgium
In the third week of March, the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) in Belgium reported it was informed on March 18th by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Liege, that SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the vomit and faeces of a cat displaying digestive and respiratory clinical signs. The cat was owned by an individual that was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Sadly, little is known about this case due to many questions surrounding collection and analysis of samples for testing for SARS-CoV-2 and the absence of an evaluation of that cat for other, more common causes for its clinical signs. Nevertheless, the cat recovered 9 days after the symptoms first developed. (American Veterinary Medical Association 2020)
March 30th Hong Kong
On March 30th, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) reported that a pet cat, living with an individual who was confirmed to have COVID-19, tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 using RT-PCR for SARS-CoV-2 via oral cavity, nasal, and rectal swab samples. Although the cat is in quarantine, he did not display any clinical signs associated with the disease.
April 3rd-5th USA New York
The first confirmed case of coronavirus in an animal in the US, was the 4-year-old Malayan tiger Nadia, at New York’s Bronx zoo in the United States, which was documented on the 5th of April, however, she started to show signs of feeling unwell on the 27th March. Nadia was one of two Malayan tigers, two Amur tigers, and three African lions that presented with coronavirus like symptoms, such as a dry cough, wheezing and a lack of appetite.
Fecal samples retrieved from Nadia the tiger, confirmed she was positive for SARS-CoV-2, however, all the animals are recovering well and no other animals in the zoo have displayed any clinical signs of illness. It is believed they contracted the virus, from an infected but asymptomatic zookeeper, however, it has not been confirmed that the zookeeper tested positive for the virus.
April 28th North Carolina USA
On April 28th, news outlets reported that a Pug in North Carolina, USA tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, however, it has yet to be confirmed by the FDA if this is the first positive case in a dog in the USA. Three members in the same household tested positive for the virus and were diagnosed with COVID-19. The owner reports that the dog displayed mild symptoms, including respiratory symptoms and a lack of appetite. There were two other pets in the same household, a dog and cat, and both tested negative for the SARS-CoV-2. This is the latest case of the virus in pets.
April 22nd USA New York
On the 22nd of April 2 pet cats living in separate areas of New York, tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2. The first cat was tested by a veterinarian after the cat began displaying mild respiratory symptoms of the virus. No one in household of this particular cat had any symptoms of the virus and there is no confirmation of how the cat contracted the virus. It is believed the cat caught the virus from his / her asymptomatic owners / family in the same household or the cat had contact with an infected person outside the home.
Samples were taken from the second cat, after showing signs of respiratory illness. In this case, the owner living in the same household had recently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, prior to the cat presenting with mild symptoms. This same owner had another cat living in the same household; however, this cat showed no clinical signs of illness.
Both cases tested presumptive positive for the virus but are expected to make a full recovery, however, according to Jacqui Norris, Veterinary scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia, “ the virus culture on these cats as well as other pets tested, was negative, meaning that an active virus was not present” What are the implications of this?
Does a Positive result mean that the animal has COVID-19?
After reading up on the Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction test (RT-PCR), the test used to detect the SARS-CoV-2 via nasal and oral swabs, I found out that this test cannot distinguish between an active / live virus and a dead virus. Regarding the 17-year-old Pomeranian, the American Veterinary Medical Association (2020) says “result suggests a small quantity of SARS-CoV-2 RNA was present in the samples but does not distinguish between RNA detected from intact virus and that detected from fragments of viral RNA.”
What does a weak positive result indicate? It indicates that a small amount of the SARS-CoV-2 has been detected, however, it doesn’t distinguish whether or not the samples contain intact / active virus (which are infectious) or only RNA fragments.
After speaking to a biologist, I was able to confirm that this means that just because a cat or dog tests positive for the coronavirus / SARS-CoV-2, doesn’t mean that they can transmit or shed the virus to other animals or humans. The two cats in New York that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 is also a similar case. A virus culture was performed on these cats and the results were negative, indicating that there was not an active virus present, thus they were not able to transmit the infection either.
In Gavin Joynt and William KK Wu’s (2020) article, Understanding COVID-19: What Does the Viral Load Really Mean? They explain that “the presence of viral RNA in specimens does not always correlate with viral transmissibility.” An experiment performed using a ferret model of H1N1 infection revealed that a negative viral culture, but not the absence of viral RNA, coincided with the end of the infectious period.
In other words, the test performed to detect the virus was positive, despite the viral culture being negative, meaning that viral RNA is still present after the infectious period is over. In fact, the real-time reverse transcriptase PCR results remained positive 6–8 days after the loss of transmissibility!
So just because a test result is positive, doesn’t mean the patient is infectious, whether human or animal. Regarding the SARS-CoV-2 virus, viral RNA is still detectable in the respiratory and fecal samples from infected patients more than a month after the onset of illness, nevertheless, a live virus could not be detected in the viral culture after week 3. Thus, patients may test positive long after the virus is no longer contagious. What does this mean?
Well it indicates that there are limitations when it come to the RT-PCR test because it cannot distinguish between infective and non-infective (dead or antibody-neutralised) viruses. (Inagaki K Song MS Crumpton JC et al. Correlation between the interval of influenza virus infectivity and results of diagnostic assays in a ferret model J Infect Dis. 2016; 213: 407-410)
After speaking to Veterinarian Michael Dym DVM and reading other medical professional’s articles, there are many concerns surrounding the accuracy of the RT-PCR test used to detect the virus. On the FDA instructions to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Viral Diseases, it states that “detection of viral RNA may not indicate the presence of infectious virus or that 2019-nCoV is the causative agent for clinical symptoms.” “This test cannot rule out diseases caused by other bacterial or viral pathogens.” So, in other words, the RT-PCR test can’t detect other viruses and bacteria, therefore the test cannot rule out those viruses out of a diagnosis through process of elimination. However, it is considered the most accurate test for the coronavirus at this time, as the test is highly sensitive and can acquire a result within 6-8 hours, which is quicker than other tests. (If you would like more information on the RT-PCR test please see the article ‘How is COVID-19 Virus Detected using Real-Time RT-PCR?’ in references at the end of this article.)
Phew! So that was a lot of information and unfortunately there is still so much we don’t know about the coronavirus and that’s not just in our pets, but us too. However, lets finally address the question on every pet owner's mind.
Can my dog or cat spread the virus?
Veterinarian and USDA official, Dr Jane Rooney, states that “There doesn’t appear to be, at this time, any evidence that suggests that the animals can spread the virus to people or that they can be a source of infection in the United States.” Dogs and cats can catch some strains of coronavirus, such as the canine respiratory coronavirus and the feline infectious peritonitis, however, the current coronavirus is believed to not be a health risk to our dogs or cats. The canine respiratory coronavirus affects the dog’s intestines, causing gastrointestinal symptoms.
The feline infectious peritonitis attacks the cat’s intestinal wall, causing symptoms such as weight loss, fever and lethargy and can cause further health complications. Nevertheless, these two types of coronavirus are not the same as the current SARS-CoV-2 virus and shouldn’t be treated as such. Coronaviruses have lived and thrived in animals for thousands of years, however only a few of these viruses have been known to jump from animals to humans and cause illness.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) have emphasised that there is no evidence that dogs or cats can spread the virus to humans or other pets. They state “There is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit COVID-19. COVID-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks.”
The CDC have also stressed that we do not need to be concerned about out pets as they stated “To date, CDC has not received any reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19. At this time, there is no evidence that companion animals including pets can spread COVID-19.”
According to the American Kennel Club 2020, Hong Kong health officials have continued to perform COVID-19 testing on both cats and dogs, owned by people infected with SARS-CoV-2 and have concluded that chances of infection in pets is infrequent. Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department have conducted tests on 17 dogs and 8 cats from homes with confirmed COVID-19 cases, or persons in close contact with confirmed patients, and out of that number only 2 dogs tested positive for coronavirus and these are the ones I have already mentioned.
Thus, it is being stressed that research shows that our pets are not at a high risk of contracting the infection and there is little to no evidence suggesting that our pets are contributing to the spread of the virus.
If our pets could spread the virus, then the other pets in the same household as those that have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (outlined above) would most certainly test positive for the virus also, but that is not the case. In all worldwide cases, other pets in the household did not contract the virus and repeated tests have come back negative.
The fact that there are so few cases worldwide, despite millions of people owning several pets in each home, shows that it isn’t easy for pets to catch the disease from humans in the first place and it is not yet possible for them to transmit the disease to other pets if they become infected.
Therefore, our pets are not contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. It is us humans that pose a higher risk to our pets, so we should take precautions just in case.
Do I Need to Take Any Precautions?
On April 17th, 2 commercial laboratories in the United States used the Reverse Transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test to test specimens from thousands of dogs and cats for SARS-CoV-2 and acquired no positive results. These specimens were obtained from United States, South Korea, Canada, and Europe, however, it is not known if the specimens used had contact with humans infected with the virus. Nevertheless, these statistics show that the virus is not widespread in our pets.
So, there is absolutely no need to panic, as there are only very few cases of pets catching the coronavirus worldwide and there is no evidence suggesting they can spread the virus to other pets or humans.
Cases show that pets contracted the virus from their owners, who were confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease. Therefore, we shouldn’t be overly concerned but we can still take some precautions to keep our pets safe, the main one being washing our hands. Its common sense to wash our hands constantly if we show any symptoms. Even before this pandemic started, it has always been a recommendation to wash your hands after touching your pet’s fur.
If you think you have the virus and are presenting with symptoms, ask other members of the family in the same household to carry out necessary care of your pet. Avoid touching food bowls, litter trays, leads and the pet’s bedding. Please don’t put face masks on your pets as it is not necessary or safe for them, however, you can wear one yourself to protect your family. Just try to limit your contact with your pets in the same way you would limit your contact with your family in the home.
Many are asking if there are vaccinations for their pets, nonetheless, there isn’t any approved vaccinations for the current coronavirus at this time. There are vaccines for the canine respiratory coronavirus, however, I must stress that this isn’t the same type of virus as SARS-CoV-2, thus this and other vaccines will not be effective. Jessica Peralta (2020) supports this as she says, “There is absolutely no evidence that vaccinating dogs with commercially available vaccines will provide cross-protection against the infection by COVID-19, since the enteric and respiratory viruses are distinctly different variants of coronavirus.”
Many are wondering if they can still fuss and pet their dogs and cats and the answer is yes you can, as the American Veterinary Medical Association says touching a pet’s fur is very low risk. The AVMA’s Chief Veterinary Officer Gail Golab state that “We’re not overly concerned about people contracting COVID-19 through contact with dogs and cats. The virus survives best on smooth surfaces, such as countertops and doorknobs. Porous materials, such as pet fur, tend to absorb and trap pathogens, making it harder to contract them through touch.”
Thus, it is highly unlikely that we can catch SARS-CoV-2 from touching our pet’s fur, however, it is advised you wash your hands before and after petting them.
Some have recommended keeping your cats indoors in case they come into contact with someone carrying the virus and then transmit it to their owner. However, as mentioned, there is absolutely no evidence of pets transmitting the virus. This recommendation was given because it is possible that air droplets from an infected person could land on your pet’s fur, if they were fussed by an infected person and then the owner could then fuss their pet and catch the virus. However, there are no cases of this happening so far and it is very unlikely to happen, because as mentioned, the fur usually traps pathogens. However, it is your choice if you want to keep your cats indoors, although you could use grooming wipes to clean your pet’s fur if they have been outside, to provide more peace of mind. You can also bath your dog more regularly, just be sure to use a shampoo that is friendly to your dog's skin.
You can still continue to walk your dog as normal if you are not self-isolating, just be sure to maintain the 2 metres distance from others and keep your dog on the lead at all times. The government have stipulated that each member in the household is permitted to have one hour of outdoor exercise once per day. If your dog requires more exercise than this, then family members in the same household should take it in turns to walk your dog, in order to provide adequate exercise on a daily basis.
If you are unable to walk your dog or have to limit your dog's exercise, then set up some activities, either in the garden or in the home, depending on the weather. I recommend checking out Sarah Fisher's Free work on the Ace Connections Facebook group. This provides your dog with enrichment and mental stimulation by placing toys and treats on different surfaces and on different heights, without the restriction of a harness, lead or collar. No training is involved, just sit back and let your dog enjoy choosing what he/she wants to do. Teaching new and fun cues, as well as enrichment games, are also excellent ways of providing mental stimulation. Remember, exercising your dog's mind is just as important as exercising their body!
It's recommended that you ensure you have plenty of pet supplies such as food, litter and poo bags, in case you are unable to purchase these items in the future, however, don't go crazy and hoard items. It's also important to have a pet first aid kit or suitable human first aid items that can be used on animals.
Vets are only taking emergency bookings right now, so it can be quite worrying if you need quick advice regarding your pets. However, I am first aid trained in dogs, cats and smaller pets and I am happy to answer questions and give advice if there are changes to your pet's health or behaviour. I am also providing free first aid call outs in the area if your pet is injured or sick, so please don't hesitate to ring, text or email me. My contact details are on my home page.
In conclusion, only three pets in Hong Kong (2 dogs and 1 cat), a tiger and two pet cats in New York state and potentially the Pug mentioned earlier (awaiting further confirmation) have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the entire world. Of the pets that have tested positive, only 3 displayed clinical signs consistent with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the symptoms were mild and they made a full recovery. Therefore, the American Veterinary Medical Association state “there is also no evidence that domestic animals, including pets and livestock, can spread COVID-19 to people.”
Yes, your cat and / or dog can potentially catch the coronavirus if they have been in contact with a human that tests positive for the virus and is diagnosed with COVID-19, but it is extremely unlikely to occur. Only a very small number have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 worldwide, despite many pets being in contact with infected owners, and only 3 of these cases developed symptoms, which were very mild.
No pets have died of the virus and there is no evidence at this time that infected cats and dogs can transmit the virus to other pets or humans. Further research and additional studies are underway to better understand the transmission dynamics and pathogenic mechanisms of this virus and to improve the rate and efficiency of testing for the virus, so I am sure we will know more as time goes on.
Overall, it’s really important that you don’t take any precautions that will threaten the welfare of your dogs and / or cats! Please, please, please don’t harm them, abandon them or leave them at a shelter! Shelters all over the country are appealing to the public because of the surge in numbers of abandoned pets. Hopefully, once you have read this, you have enough evidence to reassure you that you are not at risk from catching the coronavirus from your pets.
So, by all means take reasonable precautions against the coronavirus, but do so to protect your pets!
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Mackay. M. Ian PhD (EIC) COVID-19 is not a virus, but SARS-CoV-2 is (March 21, 2020) https://virologydownunder.com/covid-19-is-not-a-virus-but-sars-cov-2-is/
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