COVID-19 and Your Pets: Update

It has been more than a year since COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has been declared a worldwide pandemic. Much research has been done regarding many aspects of the virus, the disease process it causes as well as the spread of the virus. In the wake of the anticipation of South Africa’s ‘third wave’ of COVID-19 infections, this article serves as a follow-up discussion regarding information that has come to light in the past year.

The SARS-CoV-2 Virus

SARS-CoV-2, which is responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic, is a coronavirus that is spread to humans primarily through respiratory droplets produced during coughing and sneezing. It has also been found to remain stable on various surfaces for up to 72 hours.

This particular family of viruses is very prone to mutation, meaning that different properties of the virus and the disease caused by the virus can change over time as the virus mutates. This may lead to the virus becoming more virulent (causing more severe illness than previously documented), being able to survive for longer on surfaces, becoming more contagious or even being able to spread to and cause disease in species other than humans.

The nature of this virus means that it will continue to mutate and new information will regularly become available.

Can pets contract SARS-CoV-2?

In the past 12 months much research has been done regarding the role of pets as well as wild and domestically farmed animals in the spread of SARS-CoV-2, providing us with updated information to that available at the time of our previous article.

It has since been established that bats were the initial reservoir hosts of SARS-CoV-2 and pangolins have been suggested as an intermediate host.

It has also been confirmed that dogs and cats are both able to contract SARS-CoV-2, with cats being more susceptible than dogs as well as being able to transmit the virus to other naïve cats (cats that have not previously been exposed to the virus). Domestic cats have been reported to become ill, showing symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea, poor appetite and upper respiratory tract infection. When tested, the virus was shown to be present in the body tissues, and antibodies against the virus were present in their blood. This indicates that the virus had caused clinical infection and that their bodies were launching an active immune response to the virus – therefore a true infection. Dogs have not yet been shown to display clinical symptoms of the virus or to be able to transmit the virus to other dogs.

There have also been confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections in various other wild and domestically farmed animals such as lions, tigers, hamsters, African green monkeys, rhesus macaques and ferrets. Some of these animals have been shown to transmit the infection to other members of their species.

Thus far research suggests that all of these species that have contracted SARS-CoV-2 have contracted it from their human caretakers that were found to be infected with the virus, or by contact with other members of their own species. There is no evidence at this stage to suggest that any of our domestic pets, even if they do contract the virus, can transmit the virus to humans.

As previously mentioned though, the high rate of mutation may lead to this situation changing over time.

How does this change our approach to our pets?

There is currently no evidence to suggest that humans are in any way at higher risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 given that our pets may potentially become infected. However, should we become infected, it is important to know that our pets may contract the virus from us and, especially in the case of cats, may become clinically ill.

Should your pet become ill after contact with an individual that has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and/or COVID-19, particularly with symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, poor appetite or upper respiratory tract symptoms, it is important that they be attended to by a veterinarian. It is also important that you inform veterinary staff of exposure of the pet to an individual carrying the virus, in order for us to provide necessary quarantine facilities to prevent potential transmission to other patients.

Although it has not been proven that the virus can be carried on the skin or fur of in-contact animals, the ability of the virus to remain viable on various surfaces for up to 72 hours does encourage us to also maintain good biosecurity protocols when handling potentially infected patients. These measures include quarantine, wearing protective clothing and masks when handling these pets, as well as good hand-washing and disinfection techniques that are always practised in our facilities.

Should you or anyone in your household become infected with SARS-CoV-2 or show symptoms of COVID-19, it is recommended that the pets in the family be under the same quarantine conditions as the human individuals in the household. This is particularly important with cats, as they have been shown to be able to transmit the infection to other cats. As previously mentioned, there is no evidence to support that a dog or cat carrying SARS-CoV-2 is able to infect human beings. However, it is still recommended that good hygiene be maintained with regular hand washing, not kissing or snuggling closely with your pets if you test positive for COVID-19 and even wearing a facemask around your pets to avoid potentially infecting them. These precautions are the same as one would take to prevent the infection of another human being in your household.

Currently there are no commercially available tests in South Africa for detecting the virus in animals. Therefore, any diagnosis of COVID-19 in an animal that has been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 would be speculative. It is also important to understand that there are many potential causes for symptoms that may mimic a SARS-CoV-2 infection in cats and dogs, and that many of these causes are also contagious and therefore may be contracted from other dogs and cats with which your pets may have contact.

What can I do to protect myself and my pets against COVID-19?

Guidelines for protecting yourself, your human and your furry family members from contracting SARS-CoV-2 remain much the same as before.

  • Avoid close contact with sick individuals – this includes contact with their pets, contact of them with your pets as well as contact of your pets with their pets.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Quarantine yourself and your pets at home if you or anyone in your household is ill.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, which can be discarded in a rubbish bin.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Regularly wash or disinfect your hands, particularly so when coming into contact with any person, animal or object that you may not know the exposure status of.
  • Wash your hands for a minimum of 20 seconds with soap and water, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Should soap and water not be available, an alcohol-based sanitiser with a concentration of at least 60% alcohol may also be used.
  • Please do not apply any disinfecting agents to your pets whatsoever, unless specifically instructed to do so by your veterinarian (and in which event a pet-specific and safe product will be provided).
  • Disinfect all articles brought into the home that your pets may investigate or come into close contact with.

References:

  • Kiros, M., Andualem, H., Kiros, T., Hailemichael, W., Getu, S., Geteneh, A., Alemu, D., 2020. COVID-19 pandemic: current knowledge about the role of pets and other animals in disease transmission. Virology Journal (2020) 17:143.
  • Gönültaş S, Karabağlı M, Baştuğ Y, Çilesiz NC, Kadıoğlu A. COVID-19 and animals: What do we know? Turk J Urol 2020; 46(4): 249-52.
  • Hosie, M.J.; Hofmann-Lehmann, R.; Hartmann, K.; Egberink, H.; Truyen, U.; Addie, D.D.; Belák, S.; Boucraut-Baralon, C.; Frymus, T.; Lloret, A.; et al. Anthropogenic Infection of Cats during the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic. Viruses 2021, 13, 185. https:// doi.org/10.3390/v13020185

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