Throughout the pandemic, many people have turned to their pets for comfort or got a new dog or cat to help them through the isolation and increased social distancing. And while generally, pets and their humans do not share the same illnesses, there have been cases of different animal species catching COVID-19. This mainly happens after close contact with people infected with the virus. However, researchers are still learning how COVID-19 works in animals to understand the impact of new variants and how many species may be affected, carry, and transmit the virus.
Why Are Animals Infections Important for the World to Understand?
Not only do COVID-19 infections in animals possibly affect our furry companions, but they can also challenge our food supply chains and animal protection systems as well. It is important to understand how to protect our beloved pets and how the virus can impact how we get our food and medicine, and how animals are treated and cared for in zoos, farms, and elsewhere.
What Animals Can Get COVID-19?
So far, based on the available data, animal-to-human transmission is likely very uncommon, and the risk to most people appears to be very low. The animals below are reported to get the COVID-19 virus from people or other animals through natural exposure.
• Minks can get the virus and spread it to other minks and people
• Cats can get the virus and spread it to other cats
• Dogs can get the virus but have not been found to spread it to other dogs or humans
• Ferrets can also contract the virus, but so far, they can only spread it to other ferrets
• Hamsters are susceptible to the virus and can spread it to other hamsters and possibly humans
• Asian small-clawed otter
• Binturong or bearcat
• Eurasian beaver
• Mule deer
• Spotted hyena
• White-tailed deer
• Wild cats such as:
o Fishing cat
o Canada lynx
o Snow leopard
Beavers, gorillas, and wildcats can pass it along to their species. White-tailed deer can transmit the virus to other deer and possibly humans. The ability of the other animals to transmit to other animals or humans is currently unknown.
At this time, chickens and ducks do not appear to become infected or spread the infection based on results from studies.
How the Virus Transmits Amongst Animals
While the virus likely originated in a wild animal host, it adapted to transmit easily from human to human, and although some domestic animal species may be able to contract the virus from people infected with COVID-19, it is not common in domestic animal populations.
There is minimal evidence of cats, dogs, and other domestic animals infecting people or pet-to-pet spread. However, there are indications in some research settings that ferrets, cats, and hamsters may be able to spread the virus to their own species.
And while there is a theoretical risk of transmitting the virus to another person through a pet’s contaminated hair, it is unlikely that a sufficient amount of the virus would remain on the animal’s coat long enough to spread an infection.
What is COVID-19 Like in Animals?
So far, research shows that dogs are not easily affected, but cats, ferrets, and hamsters are more susceptible to the virus. However, the infection is usually mild, even with these more susceptible species, and the animals recover. In the positive cases, dogs show little to no symptoms, while the cats (including wild cats) show mild symptoms, and the animals recover.
The symptoms for pets are similar to those that humans experience with a COVID-19 infection.
• Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
• Lethargy (unusual lack of energy or sluggishness)
• Runny nose
• Eye discharge
• Vomiting and/or diarrhea
Keep in mind that signs of illness in dogs and cats are usually associated with various viral and bacterial infections such as kennel cough or canine flu that are not transmissible to people and are not coronaviruses.
Current Cases of COVID-19 in Animals
While there are confirmed animal cases, including a tiger at the Bronx Zoo, hippos, and some domestic pets such as cats, hamsters, and dogs, prevalence remains low in animals.
In Canada, where animal health is monitored via the Canadian Animal Health Surveillance System (CAHSS), there have been 68 cases across companion animals (such as pets like dogs and cats), mink farms, and wildlife from October 2020 to January 2022.
In the US, where confirmed cases of COVID-19 in animals are tracked by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) by their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, there have been a total of 381 cases across the country in pets, mink farms, and wildlife with 25 states with wildlife cases.
How To Help Protect Your Furry Companion
While the risk of contracting COVID-19 is low for your pets, there are some ways to help keep your animals safe. Like humans, social distancing is also important for your pet. Don’t let your pets wander into other people’s yards or unknown areas and when possible, minimize their contact with other animals and humans. While COVID-19 is a serious illness, at this time, it appears to be rare in animals, and when it does happen, the symptoms tend to be minor or absent.
There is no pet vaccine at this time (though there are limited vaccines in use at zoos), and the current canine coronavirus (different than COVID-19) is not effective against the virus that causes COVID-19. At this time, testing for animals is not necessary due to the minimal cases, and there is no indication that healthy and unexposed pets should be tested. And, of course, keeping up to date with preventative veterinary care helps keep your pet healthy and happy.
If you feel your pet is displaying symptoms of illness, such as coughing, sneezing, or lethargy, call your veterinarian immediately and keep your pet indoors and away from other pets and people as a precaution.
How to Protect Your Pet When You Have COVID-19
If you have COVID-19, limiting contact with your pet is recommended. The best option is to have another member of the household take care of your pet, if possible. If it isn’t, wash your hands before and after interacting with your animal and handling their food and any supplies. Try to avoid snuggling with them (I know, it’s hard) or letting them sleep in the same bed. Restrict your pet’s contact with those outside your house until your illness has ended. If you need help and do not have anyone to assist you with your pet, you may be able to arrange temporary housing at an animal shelter or kennel. However, this will vary depending on where you live and what services are available.
Is There Research Looking into This Further?
In Canada, zoos have started vaccinating their animals. In March 2022, Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg became the first zoo to administer shots from Zoetis, a U.S.-based animal health company that has developed vaccines, including one for avian influenza. As there is a limited supply that is approved on a “case-by-case” emergency and experimental basis, the vaccines are shared between just six zoos across the country. Zoetis began developing the vaccine in 2020, with the rollout beginning in 2021. The full course of the vaccine is two doses just three weeks apart. This vaccine uses different technology from the mRNA technology that many human vaccines use for COVID-19.
In February, the Calgary Zoo asked visitors to continue wearing masks in the gorilla pavilion to protect their pregnant gorilla, Dossi.
Researchers have also been working to understand which animals can get infected, which can pass it along to other members of their species or humans, and how replication works within those animals that are susceptible.
In fact, early in the pandemic, pigs were at the top of the watchlist for COVID-19 transmission as they are known to incubate other viruses, such as influenza and other coronaviruses. As they live in large numbers in close proximity to humans, there was a fear that pigs could further increase the spread. However, when researchers began artificially injecting pigs with SARS-CoV-2, they found it did not replicate well, suggesting that pigs are largely resistant to infection from COVID-19.
The CDC has been continuously working on a better understanding of how the virus affects animals and how it might spread between people and animals. This includes collaborating and bringing together public health, animal health, and environmental health representations to ensure an efficient exchange of information. The CDC is also conducting active surveillance in some states (including domestic pets) and has been deployed to help conduct on-farm investigations.
Overall, animals have a low risk of getting or transmitting COVID-19. Still, it is always a good idea to remain vigilant with your pets and monitor any changes in them, especially if you’ve recently had COVID-19 or they have been exposed.
Animal and Plant Inspection Service: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/dashboards/tableau/sars-dashboard
Canadian Animal Health Surveillance System (CAHSS): https://cahss.ca/cahss-tools/sars-cov-2-dashboard
The Narwal: https://thenarwhal.ca/zoo-animals-covid-19-vaccine s/
University of Calgary – Faculty of Veterinary Medicine: https://vet.ucalgary.ca/research/covid-19-research-activities/covid-19-pets
VCA Animal Hospitals: https://vcacanada.com/covid-19/covid-19-faq
World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH): https://www.woah.org/app/uploads/2021/11/en-factsheet-sars-cov-2-20211025.pdf