If you’re unlucky enough to come down with a bout of coronavirus, a cuddle with your four-legged friend might seem like the perfect pick-me-up.
But don’t scoop Fido up for a kiss just yet as research suggests that coughing and spluttering on your pet when you’re infected with Covid can put them at risk.
Scientists in the Netherlands took swabs from 310 pets in 196 households last year where a human infection had been detected. Six cats and seven dogs returned a positive PCR result, while 54 animals tested positive for virus antibodies. The researchers concluded that owners should isolate themselves from their pets, if they have contracted the virus.
“If you have Covid, you should avoid contact with your cat or dog, just as you would do with other people,” said Dr Els Broens, from Utrecht University.
This isn’t the first time that concerns have been raised about pets and coronavirus. In June 2020, a German Shepherd called Buddy sadly died after contracting Covid and in July, a Siamese cat from Surrey became the first animal to test positive in the UK.
So, although the vaccine rollout is in full swing among humans, are our four legged friends still at risk? Here is everything you need to know about protecting your pet.
Can animals catch Covid-19?
In short, yes. However, infections in animals tend to be less severe than in humans, and the risk of them transmitting it remains low.
Around the world, a small number of pet cats and dogs have been reported to be infected with Covid-19. Studies show that felines are marginally more at risk, due to a mutation in the gene that provides a vector for the virus.
In wild animals, the numbers seem to be slightly higher. One ferret tested positive in Slovenia, and an outbreak in a zoo in New York saw four tigers and three lions test positive for coronavirus, after they came into contact with a sick zoo-keeper. In December, an outbreak of coronavirus on a mink farm led to thousands of animals being culled. The industry has since been shut down until 2022.
Can animals pass coronavirus to humans?
No one is really sure, but it is unlikely. Studies have suggested that human-to-animal transmission is possible, as is animal-to-animal. One study found that domestic cats infected with Covid-19 can transmit the virus to other felines when in close contact.
However, the Telegraph’s resident vet Pete Wedderburn explains that this study was more theoretical; in reality, cats tend to be “solitary creatures” who don’t spend much time in close proximity to one another. “What we’re talking about is a low level possibility; nothing that people should be worried about,” he says.
So far, there have been only two reported cases of animals, both mink, passing a mutated version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to humans. “In theory, cats and dogs can act as fomites – infection-carrying surfaces – without being infected with the virus, e.g if a dog carried the virus on its coat. This was a concern at the start of the pandemic, but in practice it has been found to be insignificant,” he says.
How do I know if my dog or cat has Covid?
If your dog has respiratory symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing, a runny nose or a lack of appetite, then you should see your vet, says Wedderburn. However, he adds that the chances of it being coronavirus is minimal: “There are many different types of respiratory illness that can infect pets in that way, such as the cat flu viruses and kennel cough infections in dogs. Pets are far more likely to get these common diseases [than coronavirus].” If your pet does catch coronavirus, their symptoms will usually be mild, or non-existent.
He adds that, in recent months, many owners have confused a circulating strain of Canine Enteric coronavirus with the novel coronavirus. “It’s an infectious virus that goes from dog to dog, sometimes causing quite severe gastroenteritis. Vets have seen a surge in cases this year. It is the same family of virus, but it has no similarity to the strain of coronavirus spreading between humans,” he says.
Should you isolate yourself from your pets if you have coronavirus?
Yes, it might be a good idea. Wadderburn explains that, in theory, you should isolate yourself from your pets when you’re ill anyway. “There are other bacteria and viruses that you could give to your pet. If you’re ill in bed, it doesn’t make sense to have your dog sitting on your bed, possibly licking your face, and breathing in the same air as you,” he says.
If you test positive for coronavirus, Wadderburn suggests separating yourself as much as possible from your pet to minimise “what is already a very small risk of passing on the virus. If someone else is walking your dog, it is sensible to wipe down your dog’s leash, and your dog (using pet-friendly wipes).”
Daniella Dos Santos, Senior Vice President, British Veterinary Association, agrees, adding that pet owners who are self-isolating should “restrict contact with their pets as a precautionary measure” and practice good hygiene, including regular handwashing. “If your pet requires care, wash your hands before and after any interaction with them and wear a face mask,” she says.
“We recommend that owners who are confirmed or suspected to have Covid-19 should keep their dogs and cats indoors if possible, but only if the they are happy to be kept indoors. Some cats, for example, cannot stay indoors due to stress-related medical reasons,” she adds.
Can you test your dog or cat for Covid?
Testing is available for animals, but it is only recommended if your pet is showing symptoms, and has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. For cats, there is a specific test to identify Covid-19, Caroline Reay, head of veterinary services at animal charity Blue Cross, previously told the Telegraph. “The vet will have to order this in, you’ll have to pay – and the results won’t be instantaneous.”
According to the American Animal Hospital Association, who have developed PCR tests for dogs and cats, the sample is obtained using a swab from the deep nasal or pharyngeal regions. The swab is then placed into a supplied tube, which will completely inactivate the virus. As with human tests, the sample is then sent off to a lab for testing.
Will my pet need a vaccine?
Earlier this year, a group of experts suggested we might need to vaccinate animals against Covid-19. Their findings were based on fears that continued evolution of the virus in animals, followed by transmission to humans, “poses a significant long-term risk to public health.”
In Russia, the rollout of the Carnivak-Cov vaccine in dogs, cats, apes and mink is already underway. The vaccine was registered in March, and has an immunity period of six months. Another vaccine is being developed by the US veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis. In July this year, the company donated 11,000 doses of its experimental Covid-19 jab to help protect more than 100 mammalian species living in zoos and sanctuaries across 27 states.
But most experts believe there is no need to inoculate pet dogs and cats. “There’s no need for a vaccine from a public health standpoint,” William Karesh, a health expert for the non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, previously told Science Magazine.
However, for animals like mink, it may be necessary, given their susceptibility to the virus.
Should my dog or cat wear a face mask?
Sales for New York-based company Pet Masks have increased around sixfold during the pandemic. However, experts are in agreement that face coverings aren’t necessary for pets. According to the PDSA, wearing a mask is “distressing” for pets, and can affect their ability to breathe normally – particularly for flat-faced dogs.