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Your Pets Are Not Likely to Get or Transmit Coronavirus. Here’s What the Experts Say

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

A family dog in North Carolina has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans — and is believed to be the first dog in the U.S. with a confirmed case of the virus, Duke University Researchers confirmed to TIME.

Last week, on April 22, the CDC diagnosed the first two cases of SARS-CoV-2 in pets in the country. Two cats in New York state are expected to recover after developing mild respiratory illness. The news comes after a case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, was diagnosed in a tiger at the Bronx Zoo on April 5.

Still, experts say pet owners shouldn’t worry about contracting the virus from their pets or other animals.

Karen Terio, chief of the Zoological Pathology Program at the University of Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine, assisted in diagnosing the Bronx Zoo tiger.

“A tiger is not a domestic cat, they are a completely different species of cats,” she says. “To date we have no evidence of the virus being transmitted from a pet to their owners. It’s much, much more likely that an owner could potentially transmit it to their pet.”

The U.S. dog belongs to a family participating in Duke’s Molecular and Epidemiological Study of Suspected Infection (MESSI), an ongoing research study examining how the body responds to COVID-19. The mother, father and son from the family all reportedly have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“To our knowledge, this is the first instance in which the virus has been detected in a dog,” Dr. Chris Woods, the principal investigator on the MESSI study at Duke, said in a statement. “Little additional information is known at this time as we work to learn more about the exposure.”

Even then, the risk of a pet contracting the virus is low. Not including the dog and two cats in the U.S., globally only two dogs and two other cats have tested positive for the virus, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The first publicly recorded instance of a pet diagnosed with COVID-19 happened in Hong Kong in late February, and Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department along with veterinary experts at the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) concluded it to be a case of human-to-animal transmission. The pet dog belonged to someone who had the virus, and authorities at the Hong Kong Agriculture Department and OIE believe the dog contracted the virus from its owner.

In the case of one of the New York cats diagnosed on April 22, the CDC says the cat’s owner tested positive for COVID-19 before the cat showed signs of illness. In the case of the second cat, none of its household members were confirmed to be ill. The CDC says the second cat likely contracted the virus from a mild or asymptomatic household member or through contact with a sick person outside of the home.

The owners of the dog in North Carolina are both reportedly doctors: the father reportedly works in the emergency room at UNC Hospitals and the mother reportedly works as a pediatrician for Duke Health. The family’s cat and other dog were also tested, but only the pug (named Winston) tested positive, according to local news channel WRAL.

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Can your pet transmit the virus to you?

At the moment, it appears there’s little-to-no risk of pets transmitting the virus to their human owners, with no specific evidence suggesting this type of transmission has ever happened. “That’s why in the U.S. we’re really not pushing hard to test pets at all,” says William Sander, assistant professor of preventive medicine and public health, also at the University of Illinois’ College of Veterinary Medicine.

“There is no reason to think that animals, including pets, in the United States might be a source of infection with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the AVMA wrote in an emailed statement to TIME. “COVID-19 appears to be primarily transmitted by contact with an infected person’s bodily secretions, such as saliva or mucus droplets in a cough or sneeze.”

Terio, however, emphasizes that there is still much that is unknown. If your pet, for example, did contract the virus, it is not clear whether your animal would show signs of infection the way a human would. The tiger at the Bronx Zoo did show signs of respiratory distress, Terio says, “but there’s a lot that we don’t know about how different animals are going to respond to a viral infection.”

We don’t know if an animal could be an asymptomatic carrier, or if they’d experience a mild or severe form of the disease, Terio adds. “This is the tip of, you know, just trying to figure out what’s going on,” she says. “Unfortunately there are way more questions than answers at this time, and that’s tough…I think this whole thing is unsettling for everybody, and it’s hard when we don’t have good answers for people.”

Out of caution, the CDC and AVMA recommend that sick humans stay away from their animal companions. “Just like you’re keeping your distance from other people, try to have somebody else in your house take care of your pet, just to be overly cautious,” Sander says. If you are sick or showing symptoms and you have to take care of your pet, the CDC recommends avoiding snuggles or touching your pet, and washing your hands thoroughly before and after feeding.

After the New York cats were diagnosed on April 22, the CDC and the AVMA offered additional guidance: Keep cats indoors and away from other people and animals. And for dogs, keep them on a leash when you go on walks and at least six feet away from other people and animals. Also avoid dog parks and other public places where people and dogs gather.

Sander and Terio note that scientists still don’t fully understand how viruses like the one that causes COVID-19 might or might not move between humans and domestic animals.

Several preliminary studies, which have not been peer reviewed yet, have been shared on public access websites recently, Sander says, suggesting that some groups of domestic animals can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 in laboratory settings. Similarly, during the 2003 outbreak of SARS-CoV, also caused by a coronavirus in the same family as SARS-CoV-2, researchers determined that cats and ferrets could be infected with the virus—but that was in a lab setting. Those studies determined that there was little cause for concern that transmission—either to humans or to other animals—could happen in a natural environment, Sander says.

To understand SARS-CoV-2, “we base some of our educated guesses on the previous SARS-CoV that came out in 2003,” Sander says. As of now, researchers believe SARS-CoV-2, like the previous SARS, is not likely to transmit from pets to humans.

The AVMA also cautions against over-interpreting the results described in more recent studies, “some of which may report on data from a very small number of animals or provide only preliminary results.”

Can the virus live on fur?

Though studies have shown that the virus can live on a variety of surfaces for several hours or days, both Sander and the AVMA say it is unlikely the virus can live on an animal’s fur, though Terio notes that there isn’t enough research to say that with 100% certainty.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, SARS-CoV-2 can live on plastics for 72 hours, on stainless steel for 48 hours, on cardboard for 24 hours and on copper for 4 hours.

“Obviously, pet fur was not one of the [surfaces] they tested,” Terio says. “There are a number of variables involved, but you have the presume that [the virus] could potentially survive for a period of time—of potentially a day or so on the surface. Again, we don’t know the answer.”

In its emailed statement, the AVMA spokesperson writes that while the virus can be transmitted by touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes, “this appears to be a secondary route. In addition, smooth, non-porous surfaces such as countertops and doorknobs transmit viruses better than porous materials; because your pet’s hair is porous and also fibrous, it is very unlikely that you would contract COVID-19 by petting or playing with your pet. However, it’s always a good idea to practice good hygiene around animals, including washing your hands before and after interacting with them.”

The bottom line

Though there remain a lot of unknowns, the experts TIME spoke with agree that chances are low that a pet can be infected with the virus and that it is unlikely that a pet can transmit the virus to humans. But if you are sick, take extra precautions around your animals, because there is a small chance they could catch the virus from you.

“In this time of social isolation, pets are actually a great comfort for the mental health side of things too,” Sander says. “If you aren’t showing any clinical signs of anything, take advantage of having that mental support.”

With reporting by Madeleine Carlisle.

Please send any tips, leads, and stories to virus@time.com.

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com