April 3, 2020 -- As scientists race to learn more about COVID-19, several new studies suggest that the coronavirus that causes the disease can also infect pets, particularly cats and ferrets.
One study experimentally infected a wide range of domestic animals with coronavirus and found that cats and ferrets can be infected with the virus and pass it other animals, too. The same study found pigs, chickens and ducks couldn’t be infected, so that’s good news.
Another study checked the blood of more than 100 cats in Wuhan, China, to see if they had developed immune weapons against the virus, indicating that they’d fought off an infection. About 1 in 10 cats tested in the study had neutralizing antibodies to coronavirus, indicating they’d recovered from an infection.
A third study experimentally infected ferrets and found they got sick, with fevers, fatigue and coughs. They also shed live virus, which infected other ferrets.
The studies are pre-prints, which means the research hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, so the results are not the final word. But,they follow reports by health officials in Hong Kong of the cases of two dogs that became infected with the virus that causes COVID-19—a German shepherd and a Pomeranian.
WebMD reached out to Scott Weese, DVM, chief of infection control at Ontario Veterinary College in Canada and an expert in zoonotic diseases to find out how the pandemic could affect pets. The interview has been edited for clarity and length:
WebMD: What do we know about COVID-19 and Pets? People have been really interested in this question since the first report out of Hong Kong about the infected dog.
Scott Weese, DVM: We don’t know a lot. That’s the problem. There hasn’t been enough looking.
Finding a dog was a bit surprising. We don’t know whether that dog was infectious. Infected and infectious are two different things, and that’s an important thing for us to sort out.
We have two dogs in Hong Kong now.
There’s a sick cat reported out of Belgium that was positive over the course of about a week it sounds like. So that one sounds relatively convincing, too, and that gets rounded out by experimental models that were released last week.
One study tried infecting cats, ferrets, dogs, and pigs. With ferrets, it was similar to the original SARS, ferrets would get sick pretty consistently and they would infect ferrets in adjacent cages, so there was spread through indirect contact, probably droplets or aerosols.
With cats, it was somewhat similar, but less. They didn’t get obviously sick. But some of the young cats they infected had some pretty remarkable lesions in the lungs. There was transmission from the infected cats to cats in other cages, so indirect transmission.
With dogs, they exposed them to the virus, and some of them were able to become infected, but they didn’t get sick. It doesn’t seem like they are infectious. What we’re leaning toward with dogs is the idea that they can get infected, but it’s a low-level infection. A person passes the infection on to their dog. The dog doesn’t get sick and doesn’t produce enough virus to pass it on.
Cats and ferrets, we have a little more concern that if we infect them, they could potentially infect someone else or another animal.
WebMD: So what does this mean for people at home with their pets?
Weese: We have to be a bit careful how we extrapolate those findings to our home lives. Those animals were in close, prolonged contact with each other. They were living in adjacent cages. We have to be careful how we translate that to you living with your cat.
If your cat is spending a lot of time around your face, or if your cat is coughing and sneezing and you are exposed to those secretions, there’s a potential concern there.
We don’t want to freak people out. We want people to be careful around their animals. But we don’t want people to get rid of their pets.
WebMD: Should you keep your cats indoors with you right now? Should cats also be doing social distancing?
Weese: They should be.
The biggest thing we’ve been trying to get across is that if you’re sick or you’ve been exposed, keep your animals with you.
What we really want to do is keep cats that belong to people who are sick inside. Those are the cats we are worried about.
So yeah, social distancing should apply to everything. If I’m in my house, I’m not staying away from my dog or my cat because I’m not staying away from my kids, but I’m not letting my dog and my cat interact with other people or animals and when I’m walking down the street, I’m avoiding other people, so I’m going to avoid other animals, too.
WebMD: If cats are infected, do they look sick? Do they have symptoms?
Weese: We don’t know, but not necessarily. They might. A cat is more likely to get sick than a dog. We certainly can’t say if a cat is healthy, it’s not infected. It’s just like people.
WebMD: Do we have any evidence or indication that pets have been part of community transmission of COVID-19?
Weese: No. Almost all of it is driven by people. Animals, if they play a role, almost certainly play a small role. We just want to make sure we’re not missing a small component of a bigger problem.
WebMD: What if you’re asked to take care of someone else’s pet. Perhaps the pet of someone who is in the hospital with COVID-19? Is it safe to help?
Weese: It’s a realistic concern, and it’s one that we’re getting more and more questions about, too.
If you’ve recovered from COVID, that would be ideal. If you’re an unexposed person who is relatively healthy and they can do some good practices, and it’s a cat they can contain fairly easily, the risk is low.
If you haven’t been exposed [to COVID] and you have an 85-year-old diabetic living in your house, then I consider that an unacceptable risk. The risk is low, but the implications of that risk are very high.
WebMD: What precautions should you be taking if you’re looking after the pet of someone who has COVID-19?
Weese: With animals, there are two things that we’re concerned about: 1) The animal’s fur being contaminated by the infected person and 2) the animal being infected.
With the fur, or hair coat, the duration of the virus being alive on the fur is probably hours to a day and probably not much more than that. We can do things like bathe them or wipe them down with a disinfectant wipe, and we can try to minimize our contact, at least for the first day or two and that takes the contamination of the fur out of the equation. Then we just need to worry about whether the animal is infected, and what that really comes down to is reducing contact with the animal and with its respiratory secretions. A lot of handwashing.
Ideally, if it’s a cat, if you can keep it in a separate room or keep in in a cage for a while. If it’s a dog, letting it stay in a separate room, not letting it lick people. There are a lot of basic things you can do to reduce the risk.
WebMD: If I’m sick, and I’m trying to isolate from my family, do I also need to isolate from my pet? People are finding a lot of comfort in their pets right now.
Weese: Yeah, it’s tough. Ideally, you stay away from your pets.
If I’m isolated at home, if I’m staying away from my family, I’d rather stay away from them and the animal.
If I really need my cat because my cat is important for my social network while I’m isolating, I’d rather keep a cat just with me and not with them. Keep us together. When my quarantine is over, their quarantine period is over as well.