As of mid-January 2021, approximately 100 cats and dogs have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. While animal-to-human and human-to-animal transmission are possible, experts say the risk is low, and the current pandemic is driven by human-to-human transmission. In addition to cats and dogs, several other animals (tigers, lions, snow leopards, minks, and gorillas) in zoological facilities have been infected. Just under half of these cases (44) have been found in Texas, and New York and Utah are the home of 18 cases each. Several cases have been found in a range of other states all over the country, including Pennsylvania, Florida, California, and Minnesota. Aside from cats and dogs, the animals most affected seem to be minks who live on mink farms.
SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted to humans in late 2019. While some evidence suggests that it emerged from an animal source, the original source of SARS-CoV-2 has not yet been identified conclusively. Since January 2020, the virus has been circulating through humans in the United States. As of February 1, 2021, approximately 26.3 million people in the USA have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, with the number growing daily. Among pets and other animals, however, the rate of spread has been extremely low, leading pet owners to wonder whether they can get COVID-19 from their pets.
In April 2020, US studies were done of thousands of cats and dogs in North America, Europe, and South America who lived in areas where there were high levels of COVID-19. The tests used were reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, and none came out positive. And in Hong Kong, nearly 50 pets owned by COVID-19-positive owners were tested and held in quarantine. Three pets (two dogs and one cat) tested positive and none showed any symptoms of the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while it is possible for pets to spread COVID-19 to people, the risk seems to be low. While many millions of people have become infected, almost all of their pets have emerged unscathed. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that even among the small number of pets who did test positive for the virus, not all of them showed symptoms and none showed severe symptoms or died. This can be reassuring to pet owners who have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and who need to care for their pets. It can also be a source of comfort for those whose pets have been exposed to someone else with COVID-19; those pets are unlikely to get sick themselves and even less likely to pass it on to humans.
However, there are still some precautions that should be taken if a pet owner is exposed to or infected with SARS-CoV-2 or sick with COVID-19. First, the person should isolate themselves from their pet (as well as from any other family members) the best that they can. Staying in a room that nobody, including the pet, enters is the best practice. A person who is not sick should be the one caring for the pet.
If the infected individual is the only one available to care for the pet, they should wear a mask or face covering and should not spend any unnecessary time with the pet. The cat or dog should not be allowed to sleep in the person’s bed and petting and snuggling should be avoided until the person is out of isolation. The current recommendation from the CDC is that most people can leave isolation once 10 days have passed since the first symptoms as long as they have been fever-free for 24 hours.
Since the possibility of passing COVID-19 between humans and pets exists, there are additional precautions that pet owners can take to keep their animals safe. One is to not allow the pet to spend time with other people who are not part of their household. In the case of veterinary visits and necessary services from pet-sitters, those individuals should wear a mask when around animals that do not live with them.
Avoiding dog parks and other places where pets and people tend to congregate can also prevent the spread of the virus between pets. Since a pet owner does not know whether the owner of another animal is following all safety precautions or if they have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the most prudent action would be to not allow pets to play with other animals from outside of their households or “COVID bubbles.”
As for whether a vaccine for pets might be the answer to this issue, there is no need for a pet vaccine for COVID-19 at this point. Pet owners would be advised to get their vaccines when they are available to those in their circumstances, and this will minimize the very small chance that a household pet might become infected. In the meantime, however, following the suggestions above should be adequate to protect animals from being exposed to the virus and getting sick.
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