COVID-19 Pet Q&A
Danika Von Dollen, DVM, MPH
Dr. Von Dollen is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and she also has a Masters in Public Health.
- What is the role of veterinarians in Public Health?
- What is a zoonotic disease?
- Do dogs and cats get coronavirus?
- Where did COVID-19 come from?
- Can dogs and cats become infected with it?
- Can my pet spread COVID-19 to me?
- Should I get my pet tested for COVID-19?
- Veterinarians are often not the first health professionals that are thought of as preventing infectious disease in the human population, however they serve several vital functions in public health. Veterinarians play many important roles, including maintaining the health and safety of our food supply, working with human medical doctors on biomedical research, and preventing the spread of zoonotic disease. There are thousands of veterinarians that work for the USDA and other organizations that ensure the food, particularly meat, that ends up on our table is safe to eat. Research veterinarians work in several fields, one of which is “comparative medicine” which integrates human and veterinary medicine models. There are also several veterinarians that work at the CDC in departments like emerging infectious disease. What we do as small animal veterinarians is on a smaller scale, but equally important. Daily we answer the question “can my pet spread this infection to me”? We need to be knowledgeable about zoonotic infections, as it is our responsibility to both our animal patients and human clients.
- A zoonotic disease is a disease or pathogen that can be spread between humans and animals. Diseases like Rabies, leptospirosis, Giardia, Ebola, roundworms, hookworms, and several others are considered zoonotic infections.
- Both cats and dogs have their own species specific type of coronavirus. In dogs there are two main types of coronavirus, a gastrointestinal form, and a respiratory form. Canine enteric coronavirus typically affects the gastrointestinal tract, and clinical signs are typically mild or absent. The number one clinical sign of canine coronavirus is diarrhea, sometimes associated with anorexia and lethargy. It is spread through the fecal-oral route between dogs, and clinical signs usually persist between 7-10 days. This infection often does not need to be treated, however in more severe cases, treatment is usually supportive, the mainstay of which is fluids. Occasionally antibiotics are needed for secondary infections in severe cases. Puppies less than 6 weeks old are most likely to be infected. There is a vaccine for canine enteric coronavirus, however it is not widely used due to the low infectious nature of the virus, and is not currently recommended by veterinary regulating bodies.
- Canine respiratory coronavirus has been identified as one of the pathogens involved in canine infectious tracheobronchitis, commonly known as kennel cough. Clinical signs of kennel cough can range from a mild cough to pneumonia. There is no treatment beyond supportive care, and antibiotics if a secondary bacterial infection is suspected. We have a vaccine that we regularly use for Bordetella bronchiseptica, a bacterial infection associated with kennel cough, however we do not have a vaccine available for canine respiratory coronavirus.
- There is no evidence that canine coronavirus is infectious to humans.
- Feline enteric coronavirus is the main form of the virus we see in cats. It is spread through the fecal-oral route between cats. This virus can cause a deadly condition called “feline infectious peritonitis” if the body does not eliminate the pathogen soon after infection. This infection is rare, and is not transmissible to humans or dogs. There is a vaccine available, but is not recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners Feline Vaccine Advisory Panel.
- At this time, we do not know the exact source of COVID-19. Both SARS CoV (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome) are coronaviruses that we believe originated from an animal source and spread to humans via an intermediary source. SARS CoV is believed to have been transmitted from horseshoe bats to humans via intermediary host civets, which are nocturnal mammals that were sold for meat. MERS is believed to originate from bats, which was spread to humans via intermediary host camels. One school of thought is that COVID-19 spread in a similar way, from pangolins, which are armadillo-like mammals, to intermediary host civets, to humans. The disease is believed to have originated in a wild animal market in Wuhan, China.
- Both dogs and cats have tested positive for COVID-19, however we have no evidence that it makes animals as sick as it makes humans. There is evidence that cats can become infected with COVID-19 in a laboratory setting, and cats have previously been infected with the SARS CoV virus in a laboratory setting as well. There is also evidence that cats can spread it between each other. It’s important to note that while there was evidence of infection in these cats, they were not clinically sick.
- There have been five accounts of animals becoming infected with the current COVID-19, two dogs and a cat in Hong Kong, one cat in Belgium, and now a tiger in New York City. The first case, a 17 year old Pomeranian, initially tested “weakly positive”. This test indicated there was evidence of viral genetic material, but did not show that the dog was actually infected with the virus. Later testing revealed the dog developed antibodies to the virus, indicating a true COVID-19 infection. This dog had several chronic conditions and did pass away shortly after being out of quarantine, however it was for reasons not related to COVID-19. The second dog is a two year old German Shepherd that tested positive for viral particles, but has remained asymptomatic. The cat in Hong Kong has not displayed any clinical signs. The cat in Belgium developed diarrhea and respiratory signs, and tested positive for viral particles. Further diagnostic testing is pending. Most recently, four tigers and two lions developed a dry cough and decreased appetite at the Bronx Zoo. Only one tiger was tested for COVID-19 due to anesthetic concerns (the large cats need to be anesthetized to perform the test), and she tested positive for the virus. All of the cats are expected to make a full recovery, and are currently receiving veterinary care.
- Infected does not mean infectious. We do not have any evidence that animals can spread COVID-19 to us. There was also no evidence that SARS CoV could be spread from domesticated animals to humans. The main transmission route of COVID-19 is between humans, and this should remain our primary focus in infection prevention. There is evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through contact with contaminated objects, and there is some potential that if a dog or cat has the infection on their hair, they could act as a fomite, however this risk is low. Washing your hands after petting an animal, keeping your pets clean and their items like bowls and toys clean, and avoiding contact with animals that have known exposure, should greatly lower your risk of contracting the virus from petting a dog or cat.
- While we have the laboratory capacity to test dogs and cats, actually doing so is not recommended at this time. If the pet has known COVID-19 contact, the pet is generally considered “contaminated” and should be quarantined if otherwise feeling okay. Obviously if the animal is sick, we would want to treat the pet and consider testing at that time. The other dilemma is that veterinarians across the country are trying to conserve Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as much as possible for human hospitals. If we were to treat a potentially exposed pet, we would want to use PPE to protect ourselves, which would take away more PPE from the human setting.
- It’s important to note that one of the main veterinary diagnostic laboratories in the U.S, IDEXX, did test several thousand dogs and cats during the development of their diagnostic test for COVID-19, and found no positives. As of now, the USDA is not recommending routine testing of companion animals unless there is a known link to a human case of COVID-19.