As the coronavirus outbreak continues to swiftly spreads and as my Facebook feed fills with messages about the importance of social distancing to keep the elderly and immunocompromised members of our communities safe, I felt guilty as I considered my latest Google search: "Can my dog get coronavirus?"
I was mostly expecting to be met with a firm, "No, you fool! It's an animal! Get a clue!" But instead I was met with a sensational headline: "Hong Kong Dog Tests Positive For Coronavirus!"
A Pomeranian belonging to a woman with COVID-19 had tested "weak positive" for the illness in late February, according to a statement released by the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department.
Although this is decidedly not an animal epidemic, pet owners like me are certainly curious about what such news means for their furry companions. Can we infect them? Can they infect us?
We spoke to Dr. Zac Pilossoph, a veterinarian who consults with Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, to get answers.
Can Pets Contract the Coronavirus?
For now, pets are thought to be safe when it comes to COVID-19, specifically.
"There are several types of coronaviruses on Earth, each which prefers a specific species," Pilossoph told POPSUGAR. "COVID-19 is one type of unique coronavirus that infects the human species. However, there are actually seven coronavirus serovar types that can infect humans. There are also coronavirus serovars that can infect dogs, but not cats or humans, and those that can infect cats, but not dogs or humans."
Can Pets Spread the Coronavirus to Humans?
There's no proof at this time than an animal can harbour and pass on COVID-19 to a human or vice-versa.
"Continuous testing is being done globally on a regular basis to determine if this remains the case," Pilossoph said.
So, if all this is true, how did that Pomeranian in Hong Kong get it? Pilossoph predicts the dog was a passive carrier – a "living creature that can help spread disease from one animal to another" without ever becoming infected themselves.
"Your dog or cat, for a short amount of time, could pass virus particles to any human who subsequently pet them."
"Pretend you were infected with the COVID-19 virus and you decided to snuggle your outdoor cat before letting them go outside and roam the neighbourhood," he explained. "Your cat, for a short amount of time, could pass virus particles to any human who subsequently pet them. In this scenario, your cat was a passive carrier for coronavirus infection. If you performed a coronavirus test on that same cat, they may test weakly positive, not because they are infected with the virus, but because the virus is on them from your snuggle session."
In essence, Pilossoph told POPSUGAR, the pet acts as a dirty tissue or a bathroom door handle.
"The same kind of idea would go for if you were infected with COVID-19 and sneezed on a telephone in which another person then picked up and contracted the virus thereafter. The telephone would not be 'infected' but it still has the ability to potentially spread viral infection from one host to another."
Can Pets Get Sick From the Coronavirus?
At this point, pets are not getting sick from COVID-19. However, because there are coronaviruses that infect different species, it is technically possible that they can get sick from a different coronavirus, though completely unrelated to the current pandemic.
"There are two primary types of coronavirus infection in dogs," he said. One type can cause diarrhoea and the other can cause "respiratory symptoms, such as nasal discharge, sneezing, and coughing" akin to kennel cough.
As for cats? In the high majority of feline coronavirus cases, the virus causes diarrhoea symptoms similar to dogs. "However, what is interesting is that in less than one percent of cats, there is a chance that they can develop a more severe coronavirus type, which is, in almost 100 percent of cases, a fatal condition. The common term for this type of coronavirus mutant is Feline Infectious Peritonitis, or FIP. FIP is not transmissible between cats, though, which is a very important difference between FIP and COVID-19."
What Should Pet Owners Keep in Mind During the Coronavirus Outbreak?
In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak in some parts of China, dogs and cats were abandoned or even killed due to misinformation that they could also spread the virus. But both the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Organisation for Animal Health have released similar information on how "there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease" or that they become sick.
However, because they can ostensibly walk the virus around – if someone coughs on their hand and then gives them a friendly pet between the ears – it's prudent to maintain similar measures of personal hygiene and social distancing with your animals.
"Pet parents should try to keep their pet close so that their socialisation doesn't inadvertently get them infected with the coronavirus," Pilossoph told POPSUGAR.
"Overall, pets are family and you want to make sure they're taken care of at all costs."
They should also have a strategy in place for if they contract COVID-19. "Having a plan for your pet, no matter the situation – whether it's a condition like the coronavirus or a time where there is a chance for a natural distancer – is always critical to fall back on."
First, they should treat their pet like any other person and distance themselves from the animal as much as possible to prevent the spread of the virus.
Pilossoph recommends pet owners maintain ideally one month's supply of extra pet food in addition to seeking out one or two friends or family members who could step in and help with care.
"In case unexpected circumstances arise, have a map of the closest boarding facilities in the region and contact them prior to ensure they are still open, and have a basic first aid kit with the primary care vet and closest emergency hospital numbers inside," he said. "Overall, pets are family and you want to make sure they're taken care of at all costs."