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It’s official: The coronavirus can Infect pets, they can transmit it to other animals, and although rare, some animals can infect people. People can also transmit the virus to some animals. It seems like a good idea for pet owners to bear this in mind before snuggling up to their pets. 

WORDS: MARANA BRAND  •  IMAGES: SHUTTERSTOCK

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 also spread between people and animals.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) “several dogs and cats (domestic cats and tigers) in contact with infected humans have tested positive for Covid-19”.

Vulnerable animals

Cats appear to be the most susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and can even develop symptoms of the disease. In studies of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the animal equivalent of the WHO, “cats have shown clinical symptoms of disease including respiratory and gastro-intestinal signs”. They can also spread the virus to other cats.

Dogs appear to be susceptible to infection but appear to be less affected than cats. Other animals that have proven to be infected are golden hamsters and cynomolgus apes and these animals can also get ill.

The OIE is busy with studies to better understand the susceptibility of different animals and whether they get ill after infection. What they do know is that, so far, poultry and pigs cannot contract Covid-19.

Can animals infect people?

In Europe, the virus has been detected in minks raised on farms. “Most likely, they’ve been infected by farm workers. In a few instances, the minks that had been infected by humans in turn transmitted the virus to other people. These are the first reported cases of animal-to-human transmission.”

There’s no evidence, however, that cats can transmit the disease to humans “as Covid-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks”, the WHO states.

The OIE supports the view that, although several animal species have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, these infections are not a driver of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The current pandemic is being sustained through human-to-human transmission, and although current evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from an animal, investigations are ongoing to find the source and how the virus entered the human population.”

What to do

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. 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 2m from other people and animals.

If you or someone in your family is sick with Covid-19 or are at risk, they should avoid contact with their pets — this includes petting, snuggling and smooching. They should also stay away from other animals, like farm, zoo and wild animals, as well as animals in animal shelters.

If possible, have another member of your household care for your pet while you’re sick. If this isn’t an option, avoid close contact with your pets, implement basic hygiene measures, and wear a face mask around them.

Animals living with infected people should be kept indoors, similar to humans. Other people should avoid contact with these animals as well.

Always supervise young children around animals and teach them not to put their hands in their mouths after petting Fido or Fluffy. And as much as we love them, don’t let your pets kiss your face, since saliva can carry germs. If you’re worried about your pet tracking something nasty inside, even traces of Covid-19, you can wipe their paws once you return indoors.

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Other risks

Even if chances are slim that your dog, cat or other animals can infect you with the coronavirus, they can spread plenty of other 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.

The concern is that animals can be silent carriers of these diseases and immunocompromised people can be susceptible to picking them up.

So, as a general rule, wash your hands really well after you touch an animal or clean up its waste, and avoid kissing, licking or sharing food. Keep your pet’s vaccinations up to date, 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. This helps to keep you and your pet healthy.

If your pet falls ill

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. So far, the animals that have shown signs of Covid-19 have had “very mild” symptoms and are expected to make a full recovery.