With the recent outbreak of a new coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting people around the globe, there are natural questions which arise especially given the reports that this virus may have originated from animals. There are also questions which have arisen from CDC recommendations regarding COVID-19 patients and their pets. Lets try to clarify any confusion and demonstrate ways of keeping people and pets safe.
When it comes to pets at this time there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19. News reports of a companion animal showing a “weak positive” test for COVID-19 seems to be due to either a mild exposure to the virus from the owner, or a low-level infection. Based on current medical knowledge even if a dog or cat had a low level infection they would not become ill, or be able to transmit the virus to people. This is what was noted with the SARS outbreak from several years back. No reports of COVID-19 transmission to humans from companion animals currently exist.
Yet the CDC is recommending that people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 reduce or eliminate handle and care for the animals. Why? There are two main reasons. First, the virus is new and out of an abundance of caution the CDC wants to prevent spread to pets, even though this seems extremely unlikely based on all current knowledge. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if you are sick with COVID-19 your immune system is already being challenged. It’s good advice to reduce your exposure to other pathogens when you are sick, whether that sickness is COVID-19, a common cold, or the flu. So having someone else pick up feces, scoop a litter box, or give medications to your pet is always a safe plan when you are sick and is not related to any specific concern with COVID-19. Good evidence that the concern of getting COVID-19 from pets again comes from the CDC. As of writing the CDC has put no further restrictions on companion animals imported from China beyond the standard USDA and CDC guidelines for animal importation. The best advice for people in general is the same as it has been, it is best to wash your hands after handling and being around animals.
Canine fitness, training and sporting groups have also asked about special considerations to prevent COVID-19 transmission at events. Luckily no additional special requirements should be needed simply because these events involve companion animals. Follow standard CDC recommendations which include washing your hands after contact with people, surfaces or animals (or using an appropriate hand sanitizer) before touching your mouth, face, nose or eyes. Natural hand sanitizers can be just as effective as conventional ones as long as they contain at least 60% alcohol or greater. Naturally derived alcohols are still alcohols so should be just as effective. Make sure any such events have easy access to hand washing and drying, and have hand sanitizing stations available to guests. Face masks are not needed to protect yourself in such events, but always cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze (the wash your hands afterwards). In some situations, and based on government recommendations, large group gatherings may need to be temporarily postponed, but again this is not related to such gatherings involving animals.
Given that COVID-19 has coincided with the typical flu season, there have also been some increased questions about canine influenza. Fortunately, canine influenza remains a fairly uncommon disease entity. Nevertheless understanding some basics can help limit its spread and keep pets safe. First, canine influenza is different from human influenza. Based on current medical knowledge, there is no transmission of canine influenza to humans. Furthermore it seems at best there is only a limited ability to transmit to cats.
Canine influenza infection can result in a patient having either a mild or severe form of the disease. The mild form is usually very mild and self-limiting. A cough lasting anywhere from 10-30 days is seen, possibly with mild lethargy. It is often mistaken for simple kennel cough, and in the end can likely be treated as such. This form can be managed with simple supportive care such as rest and medications to reduce cough. The severe form progresses rapidly and signs can develop within hours of transmission. High fever, significant lethargy and a productive or even bloody cough may be noted. Dogs exhibiting these signs should seek emergency care as soon as possible.
Canine influenza can be transmitted from dog to dog in close confinement, similar to kennel cough. Airborne transmission can occur from dogs that inhale microscopic particles from the cough of an infected dog. It can also occur from direct oral or nasal contact as well as through various surfaces (called fomites). Fomites can be brushes, cages, water bowls, or toys. Human skin may also act as a fomite. This all becomes more likely at events such as those held by fitness, training, and sporting dog groups. This does not mean such events should be avoided, but rather take simple precautions to keep pets safe. Much like with COVID-19, washing hands between touching (and after touching) companion animals is recommended. Not allowing shared toys between dogs of different households, providing clean water bowls for each individual dog is highly recommended. Cleaning and sanitizing cages, pens, brushes, and certain equipment between dogs is important. And although the flu transmits rapidly and easily on surfaces and through the air, it is killed by most common household disinfectants quite easily.
Although in certain extreme circumstances, staying home may be the advisable option, for most common ailments it is not. As the saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” absolutely applies to most common respiratory ailments related to companion animals.