Cat or dog owners who have COVID-19 should avoid their pets while infected, experts have said. Scientists in the Netherlands have found that coronavirus is common in pet cats and dogs whose owners have the disease.
While cases of owners passing on COVID-19 to their pets are considered to be of negligible risk to public health, the scientists say that there is a “potential risk” that domestic animals could act as a “reservoir” for coronavirus and reintroduce it to humans.
“If you have COVID-19, you should avoid contact with your cat or dog, just as you would do with other people,” said Dr Els Broens, from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “The main concern, however, is not the animals’ health – they had no or mild symptoms of COVID-19 – but the potential risk that pets could act as a reservoir of the virus and reintroduce it into the human population.
“Fortunately, to date no pet-to-human transmission has been reported. So, despite the rather high prevalence among pets from COVID-19-positive households in this study, it seems unlikely that pets play a role in the pandemic.”
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The research led by Broens was presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) but has not yet been published in a journal.
A mobile veterinary clinic visited the homes of owners who had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 2 to 200 days. Broens and her colleagues took swabs from 156 dogs and 154 cats from 196 households and and used the swabs in PCR tests. Six cats and seven dogs (4.2 per cent) had positive tests and 31 cats and 23 dogs (17.4 per cent) tested positive for antibodies.
The owners of 11 of the animals that had positive PCR tests agreed for them to have more tests one to three weeks after they were first tested. All 11 pets had antibodies, providing evidence of past infection.
Eight cats and dogs that lived in the same homes as the PCR-positive pets were also tested at this second stage to check for virus transmission among pets. None of those animals tested positive, suggesting the virus was not being passed between pets living in close contact with one another.
But researchers said their findings show that COVID-19 is highly prevalent in pets of people who have had the disease.
Meanwhile, separate research, also presented at the ECCMID meeting, suggests that cats that sleep on their owner’s bed may be at particular risk of getting COVID-19 infection from their owners.
“If someone has COVID-19 there is a surprisingly high chance they will pass it on to their pet,” said Dorothee Bienzle, a professor of veterinary pathology at the University of Guelph in Canada, who presented the findings. “Cats, especially those that sleep on their owner’s bed, seem to be particularly vulnerable. So, if you have COVID-19, I’d advise that you keep your distance from your pet – and keep it out of your bedroom.”
Bienzle also recommends keeping coronavirus-infected pets away from other people and pets. “While the evidence that pets can pass the virus on to other pets is limited, it can’t be excluded,” she said. “Similarly, although pets have not been shown to pass the virus back to people, the possibility can’t be completely ruled out.”
Commenting on the findings, Prof James Wood, head of the department of veterinary medicine at University of Cambridge, said that both studies are consistent with “a growing number of studies that are suggesting that a substantial proportion of pet cats and dogs may catch SARS-CoV-2 virus [which causes COVID-19] from their owners”.
He added: “Cats and dogs may commonly be infected with the virus, but most reports are that this infection appears to be asymptomatic. It also seems that the virus does not normally transmit from dogs and cats to either other animals or their owners. These studies need to be differentiated from earlier work that has reported a very small number of individual cats and dogs to be unwell after they caught COVID-19 from their owners.”
Reader Q&A: Could my pet catch my cold?
Asked by: Debbie Rees, Leicester
The viruses that cause ordinary colds are all quite species-specific. Dogs can’t catch human colds (or vice versa), but they do have their own version, called canine infectious tracheobronchitis or kennel cough. The influenza virus is much more adaptable though. Bird, pig, horse, dog and human flu have all been shown to jump the species barrier. And bacterial diseases are even more contagious. Cats and dogs can both catch tuberculosis from humans, for example.