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Pet Docs: Pets likely do not play a role in transmission of COVID-19

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Valentina Bacchin wears a mask to protect against COVID-19 as she begins to work on Wilfy, a young West Highland white terrier who needs a haircut, in a pet grooming shop in Rome. Alessandra Tarantino/AP

I (Henri Bianucci) previously discussed news that COVID-19 had infected tigers at a zoo in New York. About that same time, a house cat in Europe also tested positive for virus. The most concerning aspect of these cases was that the animals were actually sick. Presumably, the initial transmission was from humans to the animals, but possible, too, was that one infected tiger then spread it to another.

Around the same time, a Chinese study, which was not yet peer reviewed, determined that domestic cats could not only be infected with the virus, but they could then transmit it to other cats. This news caused worry because if the virus could spread from one cat to another, it was reasonable to assume that the cats could also infect people.

Now, there is a new cause for concern. A pug in North Carolina named Winston has become the first dog in the U.S. to test positive for the virus. Is this a game changer? Do we now have to worry that our dogs could contract the virus and then spread it to people?

Well, let's look at Winston's case. He lives with a family of four, and three of them contracted COVID-19. Two were the parents with whom Winston slept. Winston was slightly off with a “small cough” for a day or two, and he didn’t eat his breakfast one morning. This all coincided with the peak in the family’s symptoms, so it was presumed that the virus, for which he later tested positive, was the cause of his signs.

Pet Docs 8-19-18 (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Perry Jameson (left) and Henri Bianucci. File/Staff

I’ll admit, it takes something like an act of God to make a pug skip a meal, but it’s still not definitively diagnostic that this or the cough was due to COVID-19. It could be a coincidence. The amount of virus detected was very low, so the researchers felt that Winston was not likely to transmit the virus to other humans or pets in the household. Testing positive means that they found viral particles on Winston. It does not necessarily mean he was actively infected with the virus.

As we mentioned in a previous column, dogs in Hong Kong who belonged to owners infected with COVID-19 also tested positive. This was the case during the SARS outbreak, but there was no evidence of active infection in the dogs, and the levels of virus detected were low. In those cases, the animals were infected by their sick owners, and they were not considered likely to spread the virus.

Infectious disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, believe that household pets do not play a role in the transmission of COVID-19. In a recent press conference Dr. Fauci stated, "there is no evidence whatsoever that we've seen, from an epidemiological standpoint, that pets can be transmitters within the household." The CDC holds the same view.

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Yet, out of an abundance of caution the CDC has updated its recommendations about handling household pets.

It appears that pets are neither significantly impacted by COVID-19, nor do they appear to be a significant source of transmission. But it's still early, and we are continuing to learn more about how this bug behaves.

The CDC is now recommending that pet owners take the same precautions with their pets as they would with other family members to avoid possible infection.

  • Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
  • Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
  • Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals.
  • Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.

If you have a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection, you should limit contact with your pets, as you would with people. The CDC recommends you take the following steps to avoid contact with pets and other animals:

  • When possible, have another member of your household care for your pets while you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding.
  • If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wear a cloth face covering and wash your hands before and after you interact with them.

If you have a confirmed, or suspected, COVID-19 infection, and you suspect that your pet has become infected, do not bring your pet to the veterinarian yourself. Call ahead, and notify them that you are sick. Your veterinarian can then determine the next best, and safest, step.

It seems likely that dogs are most frequently contaminated by the virus, rather than infected with it. Thus, their risk of suffering significant illness is minimal, as is the risk of them spreading the virus.

But, it's really too early to know this for sure. So, for now, better safe than sorry. With regard to COVID-19 and pets, take your cues from the CDC, and do what most of us already do: Treat your dogs like people.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.

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