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Can your pet get Covid-19? Study reveals risks for cats and dogs

Tl;dr: Keep your cats inside.

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Pets are not immune to the Covid-19 pandemic. A new study sheds light on where the risks lie, and, what pet owners should do to protect your furbaby and your family.

So, how worried do you need to be about your pet becoming infected with the novel coronavirus? The answer may depend on what type of pet you have.

In the study, researchers reveal that dogs are relatively safe from Covid-19 infection.

Cats and ferrets, by contrast, are “permissive to infection.”

Here’s the breakdown of which animals are at risk:

The virus that causes Covid-19 replicates efficiently in these animals. That means they ARE potentially at risk:
  • Ferrets
  • Cats
The virus replicates poorly in these animals. That means they are likely NOT at risk:
  • Dogs
  • Pigs
  • Chickens
  • Ducks

To see which animals are susceptible, researchers gave the virus to each animal through their nose or throat, and then measured how well it had replicated in various parts of the body.

In cats and ferrets, the virus took hold, replicating in the upper respiratory tract (but not in the lungs, like in humans). Older cats may be at particular risk, the study suggests.

Cats may also be susceptible to airborne transmission of the virus, the results suggest.

These results aren't just important information for pet owners — they indicate that ferrets, which are frequently used as a model to test vaccines and drugs before human trials, may be the ideal animal model to test treatments for Covid-19.

Can your pet give you coronavirus?

Of the animals in the study, pet cats, and especially senior felines, appear most susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, either by direct contact with the virus or through airborne transmission.

There is no evidence of cat-to-cat transmission so far. But the results speak to a different fear — that pets could transmit the virus to humans.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so far, "there is no evidence that pets can spread the virus to people."

At the same time, we do know that the coronavirus originated in animals before making the leap to humans.

But how animals may spread the novel coronavirus remains a mystery, and so is the animal that first spread it to humans.

Researchers believe that the Covid-19 virus originated in bats. But they also theorize that a different, intermediate animal spread the virus from bats to humans.

Pangolins, a curious species traded by poachers and valued for their meat and scales, are among the key suspects. Snakes, originally reported to be the source of the virus, have been largely ruled out.

How to protect pets from coronavirus

Keep your pets close to homeThe new study may cause some concern, but importantly, it also spells out what you should to to make sure your pet stays safe.

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Engaging in this kind of "animal management" may help control the spread of the virus, the study authors say.

Take cats. The new study finds that “cats are susceptible to airborne infection,” meaning it may be more important than ever to keep your cat indoors.

Cats can also be fomites, or surfaces the virus can live on. The British Veterinary Association has warned cat owners who are self-isolating to keep their cats indoors. Doing so will prevent cats in a home with coronavirus-positive humans from bringing the virus elsewhere.

In a statement released earlier this week, the association's president, Daniella Dos Santos, agreed with a recommendation that all cats should be kept indoors during the outbreak, as BBC News reported at the time.

The association has since clarified in a statement released on its website:

“Only cats from infected households or where their owners are self-isolating, and only if the cat is happy to be kept indoors.”

Avoid close contact, but only if you are sickDifficult as it may be to avoid cuddling with your pets, the CDC says that, if you're sick, you need to keep your distance.

"Avoid contact with your pet including, petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food," the CDC website says.

"When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick."

Regardless of whether you are sick or healthy, keep washing your hands and maintaining good hygiene around your pets. Research suggests it's possible to be infected with the novel coronavirus and show no symptoms — while still spreading it to others.

So when it comes to pets, the safest bet may be to just keep your cat indoors.

The case of a big cat getting coronavirus illustrates why that is more necessary than ever: Nadia, a tiger in the Bronx Zoo tested positive last weekend for Covid-19, according to The New York Times. Her symptoms have included a dry cough and slight appetite loss, the Times reports.

While risks remain for cats big and small, these developments aren’t necessarily cause for panic.

Neither Nadia nor the domestic cats studied “actually ever acted terribly sick,” Bronx Zoo veterinarian Paul Calle told the Times.

An experiment in a lab — like injecting a big dose of the virus through a cat’s nose — “does not replicate what is happening in people’s homes around the world," Calle points out.

In fact, cats may not be “generally susceptible” to getting sick from the novel coronavirus, he says. Good news for pet owners worried about their family or their pet's safety.

Editor's note: Since this story was published, two cats in New York state have been diagnosed with Covid-19, and the CDC has updated its guidelines for pet owners — more information here.

Abstract: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) causes the infectious disease COVID-19, which was first reported in Wuhan, China in December, 2019. Despite the tremendous efforts to control the disease, COVID-19 has now spread to over 100 countries and caused a global pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have originated in bats; however, the intermediate animal sources of the virus are completely unknown. Here, we investigated the susceptibility of ferrets and animals in close contact with humans to SARS-CoV-2. We found that SARS-CoV-2 replicates poorly in dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks, but ferrets and cats are permissive to infection. We found experimentally that cats are susceptible to airborne infection. Our study provides important insights into the animal models for SARS-CoV-2 and animal management for COVID-19 control.
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