Can Your Pet Contract COVID-19?

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In April of 2020, once the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing, a pet dog in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. According to TIME, Duke Health confirmed the test results, which made the pug, called Winston, the first dog in the U.S. to have tested positive for the virus.

“To our knowledge, this is the first instance in which the virus has been detected in a dog,” Dr. Chris Woods, the principal investigator on Duke’s Molecular and Epidemiological Study of Suspected Infection (MESSI) study, said in a statement. “Little additional information is known at this time as we work to learn more about the exposure.” Local news channel WRAL reported that the dog’s owners — a mother, who works as a pediatrician; a father, who works in the emergency room at UNC Hospitals; and a son — all tested positive for COVID-19, hence their participation in MESSI, a project that examines how the body responds to infection. (Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the ongoing study has shifted focus to the novel coronavirus.)

Nonetheless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has insisted throughout the duration of the pandemic that the risk of “animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low.” But it does raise the question: Are pets more at risk of humans spreading the virus to them? While the answer is still unclear, WRAL noted that the family’s other pets, a cat and dog, were tested and only Winston tested positive.

What Should You Do to Protect Your Pet?

Let’s dispel some misconceptions first — like those surrounding dogs and masks. Dr. John Howe, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told MarketWatch in an interview that providing your dog (or other pet) with a medical mask is “a total waste of money” — not to mention a waste of valuable resources, given the shortage of protective equipment that U.S. hospitals and healthcare facilities faced early in the pandemic.

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Nonetheless, there are still precautions you can take to make sure your four-legged companion stays healthy, as recommended by the CDC. For starters, treat your interactions with pets as you would treat your interactions with humans during this pandemic. If you’re out for a walk with your dog, keep them leashed and maintain a 6-foot distance from other pets and people. Although the CDC maintains that “there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can spread to people from the skin or fur of pets,” you should still make sure that your furry friend isn’t touched by anyone from outside your household. Additionally, after petting or bathing your canine (or feline) companion, you should be sure to wash your hands, as you normally would, to keep yourself healthy and germ-free.

If you contract COVID-19, be sure to limit your interactions with your pets. If you are self-isolating alone and come down with symptoms, see if a friend or family member can safely foster your pet while you recover. If someone is walking or watching your pet in your stead, they should be sure to bathe the animal and wash their hands frequently. If you’re sick and living in a household with other people, they should take up pet duties while you fight off the virus in a separate area of your home. Keeping your distance from humans and animals alike is essential, especially if you’re actively sick with COVID-19. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

What About the Bronx Zoo COVID-19 Cases?

Health experts have repeatedly assured the general public that humans and animals can’t pass the novel coronavirus to one another, so it seemed like a strange twist of fate when the Bronx Zoo announced on March 27 to a Tiger King-obsessed, social-distancing world that 4-year-old Malayan tiger Nadia tested positive for COVID-19. In addition to Nadia, a reported six other big cats fell ill, seemingly due to transmission of the virus from an asymptomatic zoo employee.

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While the tigers and lions were expected to make a full recovery, the situation was a landmark moment as the first-known COVID-19 infection of an animal in the United States. This revelation gave previously unbothered pet owners pause. According to MarketWatch, Google searches for “Can domestic cats get coronavirus[?]” spiked a whopping 950% in the week following the Bronx Zoo’s announcement. While the Bronx Zoo’s cases were the first for animals in the U.S., the report did come on the heels of the news about two dogs in Hong Kong reportedly having the virus. All of this begs the question, should you be worried COVID-19 being transmitted between you and your furry friend at home?

Can You Get COVID-19 From Your Pet?

While the Bronx Zoo’s tigers and lions did come down with the novel coronavirus, Dr. Howe noted that folks should remember that big cats and domestic ones, while related, are completely different animals. That means viruses affect them differently. As for the dogs in Hong Kong, Dr. Howe said, “To find pieces of the virus in stomach contents or stool does not mean [the dogs] are infected.” That is, COVID-19 may be present in a domesticated animal, but that doesn’t mean it’s infecting them. (The same goes for a cat in Belgium, whose stool had traces of the virus in it.)

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Nonetheless, since the novel coronavirus is thought to originate in a species of bat, scientists across the globe have been doing their part to test a variety of animals to determine which species may be susceptible to the novel coronavirus and if they can transmit it between one another or pass it to other species.

At this point, most experts maintain that with upwards of 90 million cases of COVID-19 reported worldwide as of January 2021, we would know if pets — and other animals we come into contact with on a daily basis — were significant vectors. The CDC has been monitoring the situation continually and still states that, while it appears the virus may spread from people to animals in some situations, the risk of animals spreading it to people is considered low.

Lend a Helping Paw

Finally, if you’re an animal lover with some extra time on your hands, you might want to try fostering or adopting a pet during the shelter-in-place and social-distancing directives. This helps animal shelters, which are generally overwhelmed, and has the added benefit of doing wonders for your mental health.

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“There is no reason to think that any animals, including shelter pets, in the United States might be a source of COVID-19,” the CDC states. Many have already taken this note to heart, causing a nationwide pet adoption boom. In short, whether you’re a long-time animal owner or new to the game, you and your pet have no reason to worry about their health — or about transmitting COVID-19 to one another.