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Parenting: Can family pets transmit the coronavirus to kids?

dog on beach

Animal-to-human coronavirus transmission is rare, according to CDC, but there is still reason to be cautious around pets. Dreamstime

Every few days, an elderly Bernese mountain dog waddles into our yard. It’s an old oaf of a dog that would likely do nothing more than lick you to death. I’ve only screamed at it twice, once when I caught it taking an oversized bathroom break on our lawn and another time when my cocker spaniel and golden retriever barked at it so ballistically that my 3-month-old woke up.

It’s a harmless dog, but in the age COVID-19, with the threat of disease all around us, I’ve wondered whether I should be more concerned. 

The science around COVID-19 and pets isn’t completely clear, but there is a lot we do know. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that two pet cats from different households had contracted the coronavirus.

According to the agency, the cats were tested after showing mild respiratory symptoms. In the first cat, no individuals in the household were confirmed to have COVID-19. It’s thought that the virus was contracted through “mildly ill or asymptomatic household members or through contact with an infected person outside its home.” The owner of the second cat did test positive for the virus. 

Sara Novak headshot

Sara Novak. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Beyond this, very few animals in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus: eight big cats (five tigers and three lions) tested positive at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, and a pug tested positive in North Carolina. But it’s not clear how many animals have been tested either, considering that much of the country is having trouble testing its own citizens, let alone their pets. And while we don’t know how the virus initially started, it has been linked back to a market in China where there was animal-to-human transmission, according to the CDC.

Additionally, there’s the question of whether the surface of a pet is a viable mode of transmission. The National Institutes of Health found in a recent report that the virus can survive on surfaces for hours or days, depending on the material. But a dog’s fur is porous and less likely to hold the virus. A dog tag, however, is a surface that could hold the virus (though this is rare). It’s much more likely to be transmitted through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking through close person-to-person contact.

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Animal-to-human transmission is rare, according to CDC, as is getting the disease from a dog tag, but there is still reason to be extremely cautious around pets.

A few weeks ago when my son and I were on a walk, a truck stopped at a construction site along our route. A man in his mid-20s hopped out of the truck and his dog, also riding in the cab of the truck, jumped out behind him. The dog began chasing after my 4-year-old son as he tried, to no avail, to ride his scooter away. (By now, thanks to my own neuroses, my son is well-versed in the rules of social distancing.) 

The dog was friendly and meant no harm, but when the dog’s owner began chasing after him, he came far too close to my son. I wasn’t as worried about the dog, but rather, his owner, who had become flustered in the moment and forgotten about social distancing. I politely reminded him to keep his distance, but inside I was freaking out. 

We tend to think that our dogs are better behaved than they actually are. I’ve had to chase after my disobedient golden retriever a time or two, but I’ve learned the hard way that leashes are always your best bet in these unsettling times.

That said, for now, the agency contends that there is no evidence, thus far, that household pets and animals have played any major role in spreading the disease, but since there’s a lot we don’t know, it’s best to be cautious with these tips from CDC:

  • 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 are sick with COVID-19 (either suspected or confirmed by a test), restrict contact with your pets and other animals, just like you would around other people.
  • 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.

Sara Novak is the editor of Lowcountry Parent. 

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