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As the deadly Coronavirus continues to rip through the world, many reports have emerged of pets being unnecessarily abandoned and sometimes even killed. This is mostly the result of over-concerned pet owners that misinterpreted news headlines of household pets that tested positive for Covid-19.
This is a really difficult time that we are living in and it is understandable that parents would go to the extremes to protect their families, but it is sad to see that some people will react drastically to exaggerated statements made on the internet by the media.
Animals are too often the victims without a voice, and as a veterinarian, it is my duty to speak up and educate pet owners on subjects that can potentially save the lives of thousands of innocent pets around the world.
COVID-19 is a novel virus, meaning that it had not previously been recorded. Research is therefore still relatively new and ongoing studies will eventually reveal more information as we continue to study this virus and the impact it has on various hosts.
From what we do know is that Covid-19 is part of the Coronavirus family, which consists of different subgroups that are found in different species; including humans, dogs, cats, livestock and wildlife. These coronaviruses tend to be species specific, meaning that in general, each specific strain can only affect one specific specie.
Now in order to understand how Covid-19 affects your pets, you first need to understand the difference between a couple of terms that are often used interchangeably on the news and therefore often mistaken for one another.
Important Fundamentals To Understand
Communicable vs non-communicable?
According to Dictionary.com, Non-communicable diseases cannot be transmitted through contact with an infected person, and is instead caused by various genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioural factors. Examples of these are cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
In contrast, a communicable disease, also known as a transmissible disease, can spread from one organism to another, be it from one person to another person or from an animal to a human in the case of zoonotic diseases.
So in essence, a communicable disease can spread, but the way in which it can be spread depends on whether it is contagious or infectious, or both.
Contagious vs infectious?
Infectious means “communicable by or causing infection”. And to break it even further down, infection refers to “the process or state of being infected with a disease” and to infect means “to affect or contaminate someone or something with disease-producing germs.”
Infectious diseases are caused by pathogenic microbial agents, such as viruses and bacteria. So in simple terms, an infectious disease occurs when bad germs get into the body in some way, spread, and make you sick by affecting the way your body normally works. Examples of these are Chickenpox, Malaria, STD’s, Ebola and of course, Covid-19.
Infectious diseases can be spread in a variety of different ways, including direct contact with an infected person, animal or their discharges (such as saliva, blood, urine, semen and respiratory droplets), direct contact with a contaminated object, contaminated food and water and by means of disease-carrying insects.
Which brings us to the word “Contagious”. An infectious disease is contagious when it spreads through direct bodily contact with an infected person, their discharges, or an object or surface they’ve contaminated.
Malaria, for example, is an infectious disease caused by a parasite that is transmitted by means of a mosquito bite, but is not contagious because you can’t get it just by being around or coming in direct contact with an infected person. Tetanus is also an infectious disease caused by bacteria that enters your bloodstream from a rusty nail, but it is also not contagious because you don’t get it by shaking hands with someone who has the infection.
Now to apply all we have learned so far to the Coronavirus:
We know that Covid-19 is a disease caused by an infection from a new type of coronavirus that can easily spread by means of direct and casual contact with a person, droplets and infected surfaces. Therefore we can make the conclusion that Covid-19 is indeed both an infectious and contagious disease.
How does this relate to my pets?
From all the research conducted to date on Covid-19, there is no evidence that dogs and cats can become infectious with the virus.
What can happen though is they can act as a fomite, meaning that they can become contaminated with the virus by means of direct contact with an infected person or object (e.g. through licking) or through the environment when walking in an area that was previously contaminated with Covid-19 by another person.
They can then transmit these virus molecules to other people, objects or surfaces by means of direct contact, given that the virus was able to stay alive for long enough. In dogs, cats and ferrets the cells that line the respiratory tract have a similar type of protein, called an ACE 2 protein, on them as humans. So if they manage to inhale the infected respiratory droplets, the virus is able to attach to these proteins, making it detectable by the screening tests used for Covid-19. This virus, however, cannot replicate inside their body and therefore dies off after a certain period of time.
Why are there reports of pets being tested positive for Covid-19?
As mentioned earlier, Covid-19 it is a novel virus, which means that research is very limited on where exactly the disease came from. The popular theory is that it originated from a bat in a wildlife market in Wuhan and that there may have been an intermediate host involved, similar to what happened during the SARS outbreak in 2002.
The way that scientists test Covid-19 in animals is very similar to humans. There are basically three methods:
PCR tests which detect fragments of the virus’ RNA, which is basically its genetic information, in nasal or oropharyngeal swabs. So if an animal inhaled the Covid-19 respiratory droplets, it will test weak positive for PCR, meaning that the test will detect that the virus is present, but if there is no persistent infection, the subsequent PCR tests will be negative, due to the virus’ failed attempt to replicate and survive inside its host, which is most often the case with pets.
Antibody or serology tests which use blood samples to detect whether or not your body made any antibodies that can fight off the virus, meaning that your body was able to generate an immune response to get rid of the virus.
Virus isolation, where they test if the virus in the samples collected can replicate under ideal environmental conditions.
According to the AVMA, there have been labs evaluating thousands of samples from dogs and cats from around the world and they have not found a single positive test. In the isolated incidents where animals did test positive, there is not a lot of information made available with regards to the testing procedures, how well controlled it was, or the environment.
The first confirmed reports of pets infected with Covid-19 came from Hong Kong in which two dogs and one cat had tested positive for Covid-19 by means of PCR, serology and virus isolation. None of these animals, along with several others who were quarantined, developed any clinical signs of respiratory disease and all positive animals were released from quarantine after 14 days and two consecutive negative PCR tests.
Several other instances of animals tested for Covid-19 were later on reported, including pets in New York, Spain, France, North Carolina, Belgium, Russia, The Netherlands and Germany.
In each of these cases, those pets have been living in very close proximity with someone who already were infected with Covid-19 or were living in a densely populated area with a high number of Covid-19 infected humans.
What about other species and Covid-19?
Covid-19 was also detected in other species. Five tigers and three lions which lived in very
close proximity at the Bronx Zoo in New York started developing clinical signs of mild respiratory disease in April 2020. The source of the infection was presumed to be due to transmission from the zookeeper, who at the time was asymptomatic. All of these large cats are recovering well.
To date, there is no conclusive evidence from published scientific studies that, under natural conditions, domestic animals, including those kept as pets such as cats, dogs, ferrets and
hamsters can be readily infected with or transmit Covid-19. However, many additional studies are underway to better understand the transmission dynamics and pathogenic mechanisms of this virus, with results of multiple studies being posted or published online on an almost daily basis.
Now there are other strains of Coronaviruses that dogs and cats are infectious to, but these generally result in gastrointestinal problems, not respiratory disease, and they are definitely not able to cause disease in humans.
Can canine Coronavirus vaccines help protect my pet from Covid-19?
There are canine coronavirus vaccines commercially available but these are intended to protect against enteric coronavirus infection in dogs and are not licensed for protection against respiratory infections, which means that the vaccine will provide no cross-protection against the infection by Covid-19, since the enteric and respiratory viruses are distinctly different variants of coronavirus.
Are dogs able to sniff out Covid-19?
On an interesting side note, there are many studies underway to determine whether or not dogs are able to sniff out Covid-19 in humans, even before they show any symptoms, similar to the way that they are were trained to detect explosives and diseases such as Parkinson’s, Malaria and colon cancer.
Several countries are examining different human samples, with the French investigating sweat, the Finnish urine, the British worn masks and nylon socks and the Americans saliva and urine. These studies have not yet published approved results, but it will definitely be an exciting breakthrough is it succeeds. And for those of you who may be concerned about the dogs getting infected whilst performing these studies, they ensured the p ublic that they are applying all the necessary precautions to prevent this from happening.
How can I protect myself and my pets during this difficult time?
The American Veterinary Medical Association, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Organization for Animal Health have all agreed on the following recommendations:
Pet owners that are not showing symptoms of Covid-19 should continue to practice good hygiene during interactions with animals, which includes washing hands before and after touching them and when handling animal food, waste or supplies.
Do not allow pets to interact with people or other animals outside the household.
Keep cats indoors, wherever possible, to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet, or 2 meters, from other people and animals. Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
Those ill with Covid-19 should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict contact with other people. Have another member of your household, a friend, or a business associate take care of feeding your animals. If you have no other options and need to take care of your pets, then wear a cloth face mask, do not share food, kisses or hugs and wash your hands thoroughly before and after any contact with them.
Routine testing of animals for Covid-19 is NOT recommended at this stage.
There is absolutely no reason to put a mask on your pet’s face. Dogs do not have sweat glands and thus use their tongues to cool down. It is therefore not comfortable at all wearing a mask.
I hope that the evidence in this article have convinced you that there is no reason to remove pets from homes even if Covid-19 has been identified in members of the household, unless of course there is a risk that the pet itself is not able to be cared for appropriately.
Animals are too often the victims without a voice. During this pandemic emergency, animals and people need the support of each other and veterinarians are there to ensure the good health of both.
Thank you for reading this article and make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel as I will be posting new videos on interesting pet related topics every week. :)
As always, have a lekker week!