By GDB's Veterinary Medical Director Kate Kuzminski, DVM
The past few weeks have been exceptionally tumultuous for us all. We have learned firsthand what the novel SARS-CoV-2 can do to people and have had our daily routines and social circles turned upside down as we shelter in place. Thank goodness we have our dogs and other companions to keep us company during this time.
So… what about COVID-19 and companion animals? I think the truth is that we are all learning about the virus SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it creates, COVID-19, on a daily basis. There are over 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 in people worldwide, yet we have heard very little about any illness in companion animals.
This week’s news is that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. This is the first animal in the United States who has tested positive for the virus and is one of 7 big cats in the zoo thought to be experiencing signs of COVID-19. It is presumed that the virus was transmitted to the tiger from an infected, but asymptomatic, caretaker. This isn’t a domesticated companion animal exactly, but it is a similar situation to the cat in Belgium who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 while living in a COVID-19+ home. Both cats had clinical signs of COVID-19, became infected from a human and are expected to recover fully. Preliminary research in China has shown that a small group of cats became infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 when they were inoculated with very high doses directly into their nasal passages. While not exactly replicating real life given the extent of the dose of virus used, the study (still waiting for peer review), does support the idea that cats may be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. In fact, scientists believe that cats may have a protein receptor on the surface of their respiratory cells that is similar to that of humans. In humans, this particular receptor protein, ACE2, is the point of attachment for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Once the virus attaches to the receptor, it can enter the cells and multiply. So in a sense, cats and humans are thought to have a similar ‘doorknob’ that allows the virus to enter the respiratory system. And while cats can get SARS-CoV-2 from people, there is no evidence to show that humans can get it from cats.
And what about COVID-19 and dogs? The same preliminary research project in China demonstrated that dogs are not very susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We know of the two dogs in Hong Kong that tested positive after their owners became ill with COVID-19, neither of which had clinical signs. Studies on the susceptibility of animals to SARS-CoV-2 support a low risk of infection of, and from, dogs. It seems that while dogs may have a low risk of becoming infected, there is no evidence that dogs can become infectious to other dogs or to people, or that they even become sick from the virus.
The truth is that what we are learning about COVID-19 in people and animals is dynamic – it changes day to day. What hasn’t changed is that experts continue to believe that pets are not a major factor in the spread of COVID-19. Humans remain the greatest risk to other humans. We know that our companion animals have a beneficial impact on our emotional and mental health. They are integral members of our family and can help reduce anxiety during this time of isolation and quarantine. It is important that we keep all of our family members healthy and safe during this public health emergency.
Considerations for GDB program dogs (guide dogs, breeder dogs, GDB puppies) as well as pet dogs during COVID-19:
- Social distancing is for people and our dogs! Keep your dog away from other people and animals when you are out in public. If someone else is not respecting the 6 foot social distancing rule and touching your dog, please remind them that both you and your dog are social distancing. If your dog does get coronavirus on the feet or fur, it is unlikely that the virus will live long enough to be an issue. If you are truly concerned, bathe the dog with animal-safe soap/shampoo when you return home. Please don’t apply hand sanitizer or other disinfectants to any companion animal. Baby wipes will not kill the coronavirus...but soap and water will.
- If you are having COVID-19 symptoms, protect your dog like you do your other family members. Limit your contact with all of your housemates. If possible, have another family member in the house provide daily care for the dog until you are feeling better. If this isn’t an option, wear a cloth facemask when interacting with your dog and don’t share food, kiss or cuddle while you are sick. Finally, always remember to wash your hands before (and after) handling any animals.
- Make a plan that identifies someone who can care for your program dog in case you are too sick to do so. Ensure you have enough food, medications and supplies ready for at least 14 days. Include the contact information for your pet’s veterinarian and vaccine records in your pet’s ‘Go Bag’.
- Until we learn more about the virus, it is a good idea to keep your animals away from other animals and people if someone in your house is infected with COVID-19.
- Because all animals can carry germs that can make people sick, we should always practice healthy habits when handling animals. This includes washing hands before and after all interactions and when handling their food, waste, or supplies.