COVID-19 and pets: facts and fiction

I’m not in full-blown isolation yet but I am practising pretty stringent social distancing. At times like this, the companionship of our pets is more important than ever, particularly for those like me who live alone. I’ve seen a few posts about animals and COVID-19, and as usual, there’s rather more scaremongering than factual information. In this blog, I am going to address four issues. Can domestic pets catch/ spread COVID-19; is it safe to take a pet to the vet; what precautions should pet owners be taking; and is hand-sanitiser toxic to pets.

First, can our pets catch COVID-19? The answer is, no. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means they can spread from humans to animals. However, this requires large numbers of humans and animals to be crowded together, as was the case in Wuhan. The current advice from the WHO is that there is no evidence at all that pets can catch COVID-19.

As a ferret owner myself, I am aware that there is a lot of worry in the ferret community because ferrets can catch flu from humans. Also, the fact that ferrets were initially used in vaccine testing has got people worried. The reasons ferrets were initially thought to be a good choice for vaccine testing were that they are generally quite susceptible to respiratory infections; and they can catch the coronavirus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

However, ferrets were very quickly rejected for vaccine testing. It was found that if deliberately infected with the virus, they showed no symptoms. Not only that, but within a few hours, they were testing negative for the virus.

The one thing I would say to ferret owners is that the early symptoms of COVID-19, which ferrets can’t catch, are very similar to those of flu, which they can. With the focus so much on COVID-19 we sometimes forget that all the normal colds and flu that circulate at this time of year are still doing the rounds. So if you get a sore throat, fever and dry cough, it would be prudent to avoid contact with your ferrets until you know what you actually have.

What about dogs? It is known that dogs can be susceptible to coronaviruses. They can catch three specific strains: Type 1 & 2 canine coronavirus, both of which cause diarrhea; and Canine respiratory coronavirus’ that causes kennel cough. There is no evidence that they can catch the COVID-19 strain. A single dog in Hong Kong has tested positive for the virus but did not get any symptoms. Actually, to say that there is no evidence to suggest that dogs can catch COVID-19 isn’t quite correct; it would be more accurate to say and there is plenty of evidence that they CAN’T – there has been extensive testing of dogs in China and Hong Kong.

Cats can also catch one, very specific coronavirus; Feline Infectious Peritonitis. Again, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they can catch COVID-19. There is also no evidence to suggest that humans could spread the virus to other pets such as rodents, reptiles and birds.

So to the second question: can pets spread COVID-19? In theory, yes. There is evidence that the virus can survive for short periods outside a host. However, survival is most likely in droplets on smooth, non-porous surfaces. Animal fur does not fit this description. In theory, if you have COVID-19 and cough all over your cat, then someone else puts their face in the cat’s fur, there’s a small risk of transferring viable virus. But if you have COVID-19 self isolation means that should not be happening!

Beenie boys love to get mucky! But that doesn’t mean they are spreading COVID-19.

Another thing to consider is how clean most animals keep themselves. If you cough all over your cat, I guarantee they will gallop off and have a jolly good wash, only pausing now and again to give you their best ‘you humans are absolutely disgusting’ glare. Ferrets are also very clean, with the possible exception of beenie boys but I don’t think poo-surfing is going to spread the virus ;). Dogs aren’t quite as meticulous but again, short of actually coughing on them, they are not going to harbour the virus on their coats.

Basically if you have a pet and are ill, self-isolating or in a vulnerable group, the overwhelming advice is that it’s fine to be around your pet, but practice good hygiene such as regular hand-washing. Also clean food bowls, water bowls, litter trays etc. regularly – which we should all be doing anyway.

So, it it safe to take your pet to the vet? There are two things to consider here: your pet’s safety, and that of yourself and the vet staff. As far as your pet goes, the vet’s surgery is a perfectly safe environment, and if he or she needs treatment, they absolutely MUST be seen by a vet! I’ll talk later about sensible contingency plans for those with pets.

If you are self-isolating, you definitely should not take your pet to the vet yourself, for your own safety and that of the veterinary staff. If you are vulnerable but not in full-blown isolation, it’s not so clear-cut but consider things like how easy it is to practice social isolation in the waiting room or consulting rooms. I do know that in every veterinary practice I’ve ever used, they are absolutely scrupulous about hygiene, and you can bet they will have stepped this up.

You may find in the coming weeks that your vet may cancel or postpone routine, non-urgent procedures. This is to minimise the risk to staff and ensure that if they have staff members going off sick, they still have the capacity to provide care for your pets. You can also be 100% confident before postponing any procedure, your vet will have carried out thorough checks to make sure that doing so will not adversely affect your pet’s health.

Dogs need exercise and it’s important to plan for who will walk them if you can’t

If you have pets, it’s sensible to have a contingency plan for what will happen to them if you become ill or have to self-isolate. This is particularly important for those living alone. I’ve installed a key safe on my property and three good friends have the combination. I have people lined up who would deliver pet supplies, and who would also help out if, for example, I had to go into hospital. Which I have no intention of happening! Dogs will need to be walked no matter what, so dog owners also need to ensure you have someone lined up to walk the dog if you can’t.

So, is it safe for you to take a pet to the vet whose owner is ill or self-isolating? Absolutely yes. Cats, ferrets and small animals will be in carriers. My plan would be that when the person collecting the pet arrives, I would put the pet carrier outside my front door then go back in and shut the door; the person collecting can then come and get the carrier. Wear disposable gloves and wipe the carrier down. On returning the pet, repeat in reverse. With dogs, which are probably on a lead, think about how you could hand the lead over to someone else while maintaining isolation. Planning ahead is the key here!

Finally, what about hand sanitiser? The rumour is that it contains ethylene glycol, which is toxic, and that if your pet licks your hand after you’ve used it, they will be poisoned. Not true. Hand sanitisers contain ethanol, or in some cases propanol. Which is toxic in large doses, but your pet would have to ingest a heck of a lot of it! In the ferret community we’ve used hand sanitiser for years at shows, with no ill effects whatsoever.

If you want further information, the PDSA website is fantastic:

It only remains for me to thank those whose photographs appear in this blog: Milo (drooly tabby and white cat); Beezy (ginger ninja cat); Crooks (handsome dark polecat ferret); Wookie (mucky beenie ferret – he’d just been up the chimney! No longer with us but would be very proud to have been chosen as an example of a messy beenie boy); Tess (angora diva ferret whose pic I didn’t need but she insisted); and Ebony (greyhound who’s sadly no longer with us, but who adored the beach!)

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