Now that the coronavirus has hit South Africa's shores, and several people have been confirmed to have the disease, COVID-19, there are many pet owners who are concerned about how COVID-19 will affect them and their pets.
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan, China, which sold both dead and live animals including fish and birds. Currently, there is no evidence suggesting a specific animal host as a virus reservoir, and further investigations are ongoing.
How is COVID-19 spread?
The disease is spread from person to person via respiratory droplets produced from the airways, often during coughing or sneezing. Symptoms appear between two and 14 days (with an average of five days) from the time of first exposure and contraction of the disease. As with most viral infections, some people will contract the disease while others who have been exposed to the same virus will not contract the disease. This is usually as a result of the immune status and health of the individual.
Symptoms of COVID-19 infection
The symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to the flu we have become accustomed to in winter and include a fever, a dry cough, weakness and fatigue, and shortness of breath. Sneezing, a runny nose and a sore throat are less common. The disease usually causes only mild symptoms, but in immune compromised or older people, it can progress to pneumonia and multi organ failure.
Can pets contract Coronavirus?
Currently, there is no evidence that companion animals can be infected with or spread COVID-19.
However, there are several coronaviruses that affect our pets and that can cause disease in animals.
It is very important to understand that when we speak about ‘coronavirus’, we are actually speaking about a large family of viruses and not a single virus. To this end there are a number of coronaviruses that can affect people and animals.
Coronaviruses belong to the family Coronaviridae. Alpha- and beta-coronaviruses usually infect mammals, while gamma and delta coronaviruses usually infect birds and fish. Canine coronavirus, which can cause mild diarrhoea, and feline coronavirus, which can cause feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), are both alpha-coronaviruses. These coronaviruses are not associated with the current coronavirus outbreak. Until the appearance of SARS-CoV-2, which belongs to the beta-coronaviruses, there were only six known coronaviruses capable of infecting humans and causing respiratory disease, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome, coronavirus SARS-CoV (identified in 2002/2003) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus MERS-CoV (identified in 2012). SARS-CoV-2 is genetically more related to SARS-CoV than MERS-CoV, but both are beta-coronaviruses with their origins in bats. While it is not known whether COVID-19 will behave the same way as SARS and MERS, the information from both of these earlier coronaviruses can inform recommendations concerning COVID-19.
Can I get COVID-19 from my pets?
Recently, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) announced that a pet dog of a COVID-19 infected patient has tested ‘weak positive’ for the virus, however, further tests are currently being carried out to determine if it is a true infection or if it is due to environmental contamination of its mouth and nose. In a statement, AFCD said that the dog had not shown any symptoms and there was no evidence to suggest that pets could contract the coronavirus or be a source of infection in people.
In the last few weeks, rapid progress had been made in the identification of viral etiology, isolation of infectious virus and the development of diagnostic tools. However, there are still many important questions that remain to be answered. For now, the information available indicates that we cannot get the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which causes COVID-19, from our pets.
It is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella that can pass between pets and humans.
Should I avoid contact with pets or other animals if I am sick with COVID-19?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following: “You should restrict contact with pets and other animals while you are sick with COVID-19, just like you would around other people. Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus.
When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. If you are sick with COVID-19, avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked and sharing food. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets and wear a facemask.”
If my pet has been in contact with someone who is sick from COVID-19, can it spread the disease to other people?
While we do not yet know for sure, there is no evidence that companion animals can be infected with or spread SARS-CoV-2. We also do not know if they could get sick from this new coronavirus.
Additionally, there is currently no evidence that companion animals could be a source of infection to people. This is a rapidly evolving situation and this information may change.
What should I do if my pet develops an unexplained illness and was around a person with documented COVID-19 infection?
We don’t yet know if companion animals can get infected by SARS-CoV-2 or develop the COVID-19 disease. If your pet develops an unexplained illness and has been exposed to a person infected with COVID-19, talk to the public health official working with the person infected with COVID-19. If your area has a state veterinarian, the public health official can consult with them or another appropriate official. If the state veterinarian, or other public health official, advises you to take your pet to a veterinary clinic, call us before you come in to let us know that you are bringing a sick pet that has been exposed to a person infected with COVID-19. This will allow us time to prepare an isolation area. Do not bring the animal to our veterinary facility unless you are instructed to do so by a public health official.
What are the concerns regarding pets that have been in contact with people infected with this virus?
While COVID-19 seems to have emerged from an animal source, it is now spreading from person to person. Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people.
Importantly, there is no evidence at this point in time (March 2020) that companion animals including pets such as dogs and cats, can become infected with COVID-19.
What should be done with pets in areas where the virus is active?
Currently there is no evidence that pets can be infected with this new coronavirus. Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, until we know more, pet owners should avoid contact with animals they are unfamiliar with and always wash their hands before and after they interact with animals. As stated before in this article, if owners are sick with COVID-19, they should avoid contact with animals in their household, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. If they need to care for their pet or be around animals while they are sick, they should wash their hands before and after they interact with them and wear a facemask.
Should my vet vaccinate my dogs against canine coronavirus because of the risk of SARS-Cov-2?
The canine coronavirus vaccines are intended to protect against enteric coronavirus infection in dogs and are NOT licensed for protection against respiratory infections. In the face of the current outbreak, some dog owners may propose that there may be some form of cross-protection against COVID-19 and may think that it will be of benefit to have their dogs vaccinated with the current coronavirus vaccine to be better protected. There is absolutely no evidence that vaccinating dogs with commercially available vaccines will provide cross-protection against the infection by SARS-CoV-2, since the enteric and respiratory viruses are distinctly different variants of coronavirus. No vaccines are currently available in any market for respiratory coronavirus infection in dogs.
What can I do to protect myself and my pets against COVID-19?
There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, experts recommend everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Stay at home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the rubbish bin.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces, using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask.
- CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
- Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Where can I find more information on COVID-19?
The most up-to-date information and advice on human infection can be found on the following websites:
• World Health Organisation (WHO) (see here)
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (see here)
The most up-to-date information related to animal health can be found on the following website:
• World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) (see here)
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