Dog Distancing

Should you let a stranger pet your dog? Covid-19 risks explained by experts

"There is usually a human at the end of every leash."

Reports of pets testing positive for Covid-19 can make pet owners anxious about how best to keep their animals, and themselves, safe.

The number of verified infections in pets remains small: On Wednesday, the CDC announced that two cats living in separate areas of New York state are the first pets in the United States to test positive for the novel coronavirus. Two dogs have been diagnosed in China, although scientists say the virus has much more trouble replicating in canines.

A few cases can bring up some big questions: Here's how to navigate the pandemic with your pet, according to experts. Scientists tell Inverse what to do about going for walks, letting cats outside, and the moment when a strange asks to pet your dog.

Do animals need to practice social distancing?

We’re still learning about the specific risks related to pets and Covid-19: Early research indicates that cats and ferrets are "permissive to infection," while dogs appear to be mostly safe.

But one type of risk is common across species: According to the British Veterinary Association, Covid-19 can live on animal fur, making it a traveling surface that can spread the virus. It works the same way that human skin, hair, doorknobs, and cell phones can pass along infections.

Because there's a chance that pets can spread the virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued four key rules:

  1. Don’t let pets interact with people or animals outside of your home.
  2. Keep cats indoors when possible.
  3. Walk dogs on a leash, staying 6 feet away from other people and animals.
  4. Avoid dog parks and other public places where people and dogs gather.

These measures may feel extreme, especially if you’re used to spending long afternoons at the dog park. But right now, it doesn’t hurt to take a few extra steps, says Rebecca Archer, a veterinarian and clinical instructor at the University of Calgary.

“Is it extra cautious? Yes, but that’s not a wrong thing at this point,” Archer tells Inverse.

Archer is part of a research team examining the risks surrounding pets and Covid-19. She says the risk of getting sick from your pet is small, but the science is still developing.

“Things are changing very quickly in terms of what we know,” Archer says. For now, being extra careful is the difference between some risk and basically none at all. If you help your animals practice social distancing, in the same way you're socially distancing, then you eliminate that risk, Archer says.

How can you safely walk your dog (or cat)?

Keeping cats inside is one thing, but dogs need to be walked several times a day. Staying away from others on the sidewalk is tricky when you’re accompanied by a playful pup, who might be eager to visit with a passerby. Should you let a stranger pet your dog?

Researchers believe that it's very unlikely for an animal to infect a human with the virus that causes Covid-19. But the risk of human spread is a reason to keep your distance, says Annette O'Connor, a veterinarian and researcher at Michigan State University.

"It is essential to maintain social distance from other people," O'Connor says. "This means to avoid contact with other dogs because there is usually a human at the end of every leash."

O'Connor says it's best to avoid crowded dog parks — and even suggests walking your cat on a leash if they must go outside until scientists know more.

Cats are probably low-risk, but this is one way to keep track of them outside.Shutterstock

Is it still okay to pet other people’s dogs?

If it’s best not to let your dog get too close to strangers or other dogs, then by extension, you should definitely ask permission before petting someone else’s pet. Because pet fur can act as a fomite — something that can carry infection — your germs can attach themselves to the animal, and potentially get someone else sick.

If you must squeeze in a pat, good hygiene is key.

“If you’re out there and desperately need to pet someone else’s dog or cat, don’t touch your face and wash your hands,” Archer says. “Caution is the name of the game right now.”

If pet fur can carry the coronavirus — should you let your cat go outside?

Studies indicate that Covid-19 doesn't last as long on surfaces that are porous — cardboard, tissues, and probably fur — than materials like metal and plastic. That’s because the virus is protected by a lipid envelope: On porous surfaces, that fatty layer dehydrates faster, killing the virus more quickly.

Exactly how long the virus can live on fur has yet to be discovered. “Fur is pretty low on the list of testing priorities right now,” Sarah Caddy tells Inverse. She studies infectious disease at the University of Cambridge and is a qualified veterinarian surgeon.

Still, previous studies on tissues and soft toys suggest it may live for just a few hours, Caddy explains — suggesting that the virus would likely die within 24 hours if attached to pet fur.

Fur can be a fomite, or surface on which a virus can live.Sascha Christian/Shutterstock

As far as keeping cats indoors, Caddy’s advice is to be sensible and consider the risks where you live. Crowded cities are more likely to present a risk than more rural areas, she notes.

While it’s good to stay safe, Caddy says that the small number of cat cases suggests that the risk is probably very low.

What should you do with your pet if you’re sick?

If you’ve been diagnosed with Covid-19, or suspect you have the virus, you should take additional steps as a precaution. The CDC recommends keeping your distance, avoiding pets and cuddles, and if possible, having someone else in your home care for your pet.

“Think of your pet as one more furry little family member,” Archer says. “Protect them in the same way you’d protect the rest of your household.”

If you aren’t sick, however, there’s no reason to hold off on loving your pet. Research demonstrates that pets make us happier and healthier, so right now may be an especially good time to lean into affection.

“Give your kitty cuddles; give your dog belly rubs,” Archer says.

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