Can Our Pets Get Sick from the Coronavirus, Then Pass it Along to People?

Dear EarthTalk: Can our pets get sick from the coronavirus too, and can they pass it along to people?

– J.M., Bridgeport, CT

Given that Covid-19 probably originated in bats means that it’s no surprise that the dreaded virus can pass between animals and humans. But when a four-year-old Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for Coronavirus recently (and six of his peers showed similar symptoms), it sent shock waves across the United States, especially in the two-thirds of American households with pets.

Zoo officials report that the tiger started getting sick on March 27 after exposure to a human handler who later tested positive for Covid-19. (The zoo has been closed to the public since March 16.) While the sick tigers are expected to recover fully, the spread of the infection beyond humans is worrisome to not only pet owners but also to those of us concerned about the health of the planet’s wildlife and biodiversity, which is already teetering on the ropes given the one-two punch of habitat loss and climate change.

And if tigers can get it, what about house cats? What about dogs? “There have been reports outside the U.S. of pet dogs or cats becoming infected after close contact with contagious people, including a Hong Kong dog that tested positive for a low level of the pathogen in February and early March,” reports Jennifer Peltz for the Associated Press. “Hong Kong agriculture authorities concluded that pet dogs and cats couldn’t pass the virus to human beings but could test positive if exposed by their owner.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concurs that it’s not our pets we should be worrying about, as the pandemic is spreading as a result of human-to-human transmission thanks to our coughing, sneezing and even just talking. “There is no reason to think that any animals or pets in the United States might be a source of infection with this novel coronavirus.”

But CDC nevertheless recommends staying out of contact with pets if you have contracted the virus (or if you suspect you have it). “Although there have been no reports of pets becoming sick with COVID-19 in the United States, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus,” warns CDC. “This can help ensure both you and your animals stay healthy.”

If you are sick, CDC recommends trying to get other people to take care of your animals until you’re all better. And if that’s not possible, minimize contact with your pets (especially petting, snuggling, kissing or licking, and sharing food) and wash your hands before and after your interactions.

“If pets go out and have contact with an infected person, they have the chance to get infected,” reports Li Lanjuan, an epidemiologist with China’s National Health Commission, adding that a pet who has been exposed to Covid-19 should be isolated just like any human who has shown symptoms or tested positive. “In addition to people, we should be careful with other mammals especially pets.”

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