When the current outbreak of novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, first came to light in December 2019, researchers indicated that animals were the likely source of the virus. So people are naturally asking, "Can my pet contract and transmit this virus?" That question has become even more valid after one dog - the pet of an infected owner in Hong Kong - recently tested "weak positive" for the virus.
First and foremost, what are coronaviruses?
Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause a variety of symptoms, including but not limited to a runny nose, cough, sore throat, fever, and sometimes intestinal distress. Some are as mild as the common cold, while others are more likely to develop into pneumonia. These viruses are typically spread through direct contact with an infected person.
Unlike the many memes you've surely seen online, the coronavirus gets its name from crown-like spikes that are found on its surface. Other well-known coronaviruses are SARS and MERS, the former of which you likely recall from its outbreak in 2003.
Do coronaviruses exist in animals?
You've likely heard the speculation that this recent Coronavirus outbreak was caused by bats, but the truth is Coronaviruses are common in several species of domestic and wild animals. These include cats, dogs, cattle, horses, camels, (yes) bats, and others.
Can we get a strain of the coronaviruses from our pets?
Health experts are saying that there is no evidence that pets can get sick from the virus or transmit the disease to humans or other animals. However, that does not mean we should not take the same precautions that we would take to prevent the spread of germs from our pets to our family members. For example, you should wash your hands often with soap and water before and after you interact with your pet. Also, do not touch your face or allow your pet to lick your face.
You might have recently read about the aforementioned dog in Hong Kong that tested positive for COVID-19. Researchers there have determined that the dog was infected by the virus at a "low level" and, as such, the dog is being quarantined and undergoing further testing until the results return negative. The virus was found in the canine's mouth and nose, which are dogs' means of exploring the environment around them. As it stands, the dog is not showing any symptoms of COVID-19.
How can I protect my pet against COVID-19?
To protect your pet from respiratory diseases, see your veterinarian to vaccinate your pet for Bordetella, parainfluenza, and canine influenza, which are the most common vaccine-preventable respiratory diseases in pets.
How can I protect myself and my family members from COVID-19?
You've surely seen these protective measures against COVID-19 ad nauseam on the news by now, but it never hurts to reiterate these practical precautions:
Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Watch a video about the recommended hand-washing technique by the World Health Organization. Avoid close contact with people who are ill. Stay home when you are sick or have a fever. Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, and then throw the tissue in the trash. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. Maintain personal space (six feet is recommended) between you and other people.
These methods are not only designed to keep you from getting the virus but also to prevent others from getting it if you unknowingly have it. As the CDC notes, the virus can be spread between people from droplets from coughs and/or sneezes or touching a surface that has these droplets on them.
What happens if I get COVID-19?
If you become ill with the COVID-19 coronavirus, don't panic. It has been found to be primarily only detrimental to those whose immune systems are already compromised, and most people will simply experience it as a bad cold. Please do wear a well-fitted mask, however, to help prevent the spread of the virus. Limit contact with other humans and your pets as recommended by your physician and veterinarian.
When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. Avoid direct contact with pets, including snuggling, petting, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets and wear a fitted facemask as directed by your physician.
Where can I find more information about COVID-19?
COVID-19 is new and still being researched, so physicians and veterinarians cannot be absolutely certain about the nature of its infection and spread. For more information, please see this February 29, 2020 advisory from The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA).
As always, if you see any symptoms of illness of any kind in your pet, please call your primary care veterinarian to describe the symptoms and get instructions before you bring your pet to the animal hospital or clinic. If you, yourself, are experiencing any signs of respiratory illness, we advise that you please follow the directions of the health authorities; and kindly request that you do not go to your veterinarian's facilities, but please call them to reschedule any upcoming appointment.
We wish you and your family the best of health!