Are Pets Catching Covid-19 From Their Owners?

Hunter Cabot

Studies show many infected households have pets with Covid -19 antibodies
The pandemic hasn't been easy on petsphoto by Andrew S

It’s been an emotional roller coaster for the furry ones.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, the news that pets could catch Covid-19 prompted a tragic trend: families afraid of catching the virus were abandoning their pets at shelters.

A few weeks later, the CDC assured us that transmission from pets to humans was sporadic, possibly non-existent, and Spot and Fluffy breathed a sigh of relief.

By April 2020, we were in the height of quarantine mode in the U.S., and suddenly everyone was adopting pets, as Americans found themselves housebound, bored, and anxious.

The widespread adoption trend probably helped many people deal with their anxiety during that long, tumultuous year we all experienced. Studies have found that the very act of petting an animal’s fur releases serotonin and dopamine, making you feel happier and less stressed.

Now, as more people return to work and more children return to school, once again people are bringing their pets back to shelters, saying they don’t have time to take care of them properly.

In July and August, animal advocates in California, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina made headlines, pleading with people not to return their adopted pets, as capacity in shelters was overflowing.

One of the problems facing shelters today is the possibility of Covid-19 infection in abandoned animals.

The CDC recommends shelters ask the individual dropping off an animal if the animal had been in contact with a Covid-19 infected person, but people may not be honest, fearing the animal will be euthanized.

Pets, Livestock, and Covid-19

Pets like cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, and ferrets can catch the Covid-19 virus and transmit it to each other in varying degrees of likelihood.

Cats seem to be most easily able to spread the virus to each other. It was thought at one time that dogs were somewhat resistant to carrying a viral load, but now (September 2021), that school of thought is changing. Livestock animals such as pigs, cows, ducks, and chickens are largely resistant to the virus.

The chart below shows, state-by-state, how many non-farm animals across the U.S. have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
State by state confirmed Covid-19 positive non-farm animalschart by U.S. Dept of Agriculture

Mink have been very concerning to pathologists during this pandemic as they’ve been found to have two-way transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (human to animal and vice-versa). Last summer, there were huge outbreaks among the animals of the mink farms in the Netherlands, and shortly afterward, 68% of the workers were found to be infected. Subsequently, Denmark and the Netherlands took a drastic step, killing 20 million mink to stop the spread.

The CDC still maintains that it is very rare for a person to contract Covid-19 from a pet, although pets can easily transmit the virus to each other.

Covid-19 Transmission from Pet Owners to Pets

As of August 17, 2021, there were 221 cases of confirmed SARS-CoV-2 positive tests across the nation in “non-farmed animals”.

On August 11, the first dog in North Carolina tested positive for SARS -CoV-2, when his owner brought him to N.C. State Veterinary Hospital suffering from respiratory distress. The dog was acutely ill and succumbed to the disease. It was revealed to the hospital staff that there had been a Covid-19 positive member in the household who had recovered recently. There is still an ongoing investigation to determine the dog’s health prior to infection.

Studies have shown that pets in a Covid-19 positive household often contract the virus themselves.

In one such study, a team led by veterinarian Dorothee Bienzle of the University of Guelph in Ontario, investigated the cases of over 250 pets who were in Covid-19 positive households.

She found that 2 out of 3 cats, and 2 out of 5 dogs were also carrying Covid-19 antibodies, indicating they, too, had been infected at one point. She compared this finding with a control group of pets taken from shelters, in which there were no Covid-19 exposures reported, and the numbers dropped to 1 in 10 testing positive.

This study also indicates that cats become more easily infected with Covid-19 than dogs.

Two separate studies have had similar results, and the findings have been presented to the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, while awaiting publication in scientific journals.

Symptoms of Covid-19 Infection in Pets

Both cats and dogs will exhibit similar symptoms as each other, which in most cases are not life-threatening.

  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Lethargy (unusual laziness or sluggishness)
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Eye discharge
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If your pet exhibits any of these symptoms, keep them separated from any other pets in the household, and consult with your veterinarian.
Keep your pets happy and healthyphoto by Christopher Ryan

Protect Your Pets

The best way to keep your pets from catching Covid-19 is to keep them away from infected people or animals.

  • Keep your cats indoors
  • Walk your dog on a leash and don’t let him socialize (bump noses) with strangers’ dogs
  • Don’t let your dog investigate another dog’s “bathroom waste” in the grass
  • If someone in your household has Covid, isolate the individual away from the pets as well as the people
  • Isolate infected pets away from healthy pets until they stop exhibiting symptoms
  • Sanitize bedding, toys, and dishes of infected pets
  • Wear rubber gloves when handling infected pets’ toys, dishes, bedding, or waste

A major concern of scientists at this stage is if the virus is allowed to run rampant through our pet population — especially cats — it may evolve into a two-way transmission capability such as they’ve discovered in mink, eventually being able to jump from (feral) cat to (household) cat to owner.

Although, at this point, the CDC says the risk of pet-to-person infection is low, keeping our pets healthy is a positive step toward keeping the virus from mutating into something more dangerous.


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