Ng Han Guan/Associated Press
En español | Just as medical experts are learning more each day about how the new coronavirus (dubbed SARS-CoV-2) impacts the health of humans, they’re also studying its effects on animals. And what they’ve discovered is that although the virus primarily spreads from person to person, it can spread from people to pets in some situations.
A small number of pets worldwide, including cats and dogs, have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, “mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
Cats appear to be the most susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and can even develop symptoms of the disease, preliminary studies show. They also seem to be able to spread the virus to other cats. (Laboratory studies have found that ferrets and golden or Syrian hamsters can spread the infection to other animals of the same species as well.)
How to protect your pets
Keeping your four-legged family members safe during the coronavirus pandemic looks a lot like how you might go about protecting the humans in your family.
Physical distancing is a key preventative measure. Public health experts recommend keeping your pet away from other people and animals outside the household.
Avoid dog parks and public spaces where dogs gather to play, and when on walks, keep your dog at least 6 feet from other people and animals. Cats should be kept indoors when possible to limit their interaction with other people and pets, the CDC advises.
If you or someone in your family is sick with COVID-19, avoid contact with your pets — this includes petting, snuggling and smooching. If possible, have another member of your household care for your pet while you are sick, the CDC says. Also: Be sure to wear a cloth face covering if and when you are around your pet, and don’t forget to wash your hands before and after touching any animal. This helps to keep you and your pet healthy.
If you are concerned that your pet has been exposed to the coronavirus, contact your veterinarian. Just like with people, it’s better to call first to limit the risk of exposing others to the virus.
Christine Klippen, an emergency veterinarian at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, D.C., stresses that the few animals that have shown signs of a SARS-CoV-2 infection have had “very mild” symptoms and did not require hospitalization. “All pets that have become infected are expected to make a full recovery,” she adds.
Diseases that spread from pets to humans
At this time, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low, the CDC confirms. That said, dogs, cats and other animals can spread plenty of viral and bacterial illnesses to their human companions, including rabies, leptospirosis, listeria and salmonella, to name a few. Dogs can also carry superbugs that make people sick.
“And the concern with those particular diseases is that animals can be silent carriers and immunocompromised folks can be susceptible to picking them up,” Klippen explains.
Her advice? Wash your hands “really well” after you touch an animal or clean up its waste. Keep your pet up to date on vaccines, especially if your dog or cat is boarded often, is active outside or frequents dog parks. And don’t forget to stay on top of flea and tick prevention.
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“A lot of the flea and tick diseases that dogs and cats can pick up can also bite you and cause disease in us,” Klippen says.
The CDC also recommends avoiding those loving licks from your pet — especially around the mouth or an open wound.
If you notice any changes in your dog’s health — vomiting, diarrhea (especially bloody diarrhea), coughing, nasal discharge, rapid breathing or variations in activity or demeanor — call the vet. These are signs your pet may have picked up a bug, Klippen says.
Other types of coronaviruses can make pets sick, like canine and feline coronaviruses. However, “these other coronaviruses cannot infect people and are not related to the current COVID-19 outbreak,” the CDC says.
Keep pets in quarantine plans
As COVID-19 continues its spread in the U.S., be sure to include your pet in any preparedness plans you and your family make. When you’re at the store stocking up on items for yourself, grab an extra bag of dog food or cat food, Klippen says.
If your pet is on a long-term medication, talk to your vet about getting some extra pills to make sure you won’t run out during a time when you want to minimize trips out in public as much as possible. The CDC recommends adults who take routine medications do the same.
“It’s making sure that you have adequate supplies for your dog and cat as well,” Klippen explains.