It happens, but it's not a common occurrence.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated May 27, 2020
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We’re getting used to our daily news feeds filling up with reports of new COVID-19 cases. But could our pets—particularly cats and maybe even dogs—be vulnerable to infection? US government officials recently announced the first confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in two pet cats in New York. They were the first known pets in the US to test positive for the virus, which causes COVID-19 in humans. Then multiple reports surfaced of a pug named Winston, believed to be the first dog in the US to test positive for the virus. 

Now, before you cut off all contact with your furry friends, you need to know the facts. From January 1 through May 21, there have been fewer than 20 reports globally of pets being infected with SARS-CoV-2, and fewer than 10 have tested positive for the virus, says the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). "There is little to no evidence that domestic animals are easily infected with SARS-CoV-2 under natural conditions and no evidence to date that they transmit the virus to people," it says.

As for cat-to-cat transmission in a laboratory? That seems to be a possibility. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and in Tokyo, Japan, inoculated three domestic cats with SARS-CoV-2 and housed each one with a virus-free cat. By the third day, the virus was detectable in all three inoculated cats. Two days after being paired up, one of the healthy cats had a positive nasal swab, suggesting that it was shedding virus. By day five, the virus was detected in all three previously uninfected cats. No rectal swabs detected the virus, and none of the cats exhibited symptoms of the infection. Reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers conclude that more study is needed to better understand the role that cats may play in transmitting the virus to other cats and, potentially, to people.

Earlier, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 after first displaying symptoms on March 27. It had been the first known instance of the virus in a tiger. Several other lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo also displayed symptoms of respiratory illness, but only one tiger was tested. Public health officials thought the large cats became sick after being exposed to an infected zoo employee. But the animals are reportedly doing well now, and the zoo has been closed to the public since mid-March. 

There are a few other reported cases of domestic animals having coronavirus in other countries—such as a pet cat in Belgium whose owner had previously tested positive for COVID-19. Cats seem most susceptible to the disease, says the World Organisation for Animal Health.

In the case of the two US cats, both reportedly lived in separate areas of New York State. One was tested after showing mild respiratory symptoms. The cat may have picked up the virus through contact with a mildly ill or asymptomatic household member or with someone outside the home with the infection, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and USDA. The second cat, whose owner tested positive for COVID-19, also showed signs of respiratory illness.

Separately, members of a North Carolina family who recovered from mild coronavirus symptoms enrolled in a study in which they, along with their pet dog Winston, tested positive for the virus, reports USA Today. Winston reportedly had a cough.

Some coronavirus strains are zoonotic, which means they can be transmitted between animals and humans. While evidence suggests the COVID-19 virus first emerged from an animal source, more science is needed to “explain the original route of transmission from an arrival source to humans,” says the World Organisation for Animal Health.

What does the COVID-19 epidemic mean for my pet?

With so many unknowns about the new coronavirus, and personal hygiene and safety at the forefront of our minds, many pet owners are understandably concerned. Small animal and exotic veterinarian Sara Ochoa, DVM, who practices at Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital in Texas, tells Health, that “it’s possible that pets may temporarily have the virus live on their coat and not show any signs of illness.”

Credit: Getty Images

Whether you’re showing symptoms of COVID-19 or not, you should be as scrupulous as ever about handwashing and hygiene practices if you have a pet at home. “It’s always best to wash your hands after touching your pets, their food, and other areas they commonly stay,” says Dr. Ochoa. “Just like with people, it is advised to wash their bedding, toys, and bowls frequently to help stop the spread of disease.” 

On March 30, the AVMA and the CDC released recommendations to help keep people with companion animals safe and healthy during the pandemic. If a pet owner is infected with the new coronavirus, they should keep their animal in the home with them and allow them “minimal contact” with other pets and people for 14 days. The USDA says the infected owner should avoid all direct contact with their pet—that means no petting, snuggling, kissing, or sharing food. 

The AVMA/CDC recommendations say that bathing pets is not necessary, and Dr. Ochoa warns against washing a pet with Lysol or wiping them down with disinfectant. “These can be very toxic to pets,” she says. 

To protect your pets from infection, the CDC suggests avoiding large gatherings of pets and people, such as dog parks, and walking your dog at least 6 feet from other animals and their owners.

If you’re wondering whether you can carry on taking your dog to the groomers or to doggy day care, Dr. Ochoa advises against it. “I wouldn’t take my pet out where it could possibly be exposed to COVID-19 until we know for sure what the risks are,” she says. In many states, this may not even be a dilemma, as these businesses aren’t recognized as being essential and have had to close. 

If you think your pet is showing signs of the new coronavirus (or any respiratory illness), the USDA recommends calling your veterinary clinic for advice. Make sure you tell your veterinarian if your pet was exposed to someone who was sick with COVID-19. If your veterinarian thinks your pet should be tested for the virus, they will contact state animal health officials, who will decide whether samples should be taken for testing.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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