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It’s obviously a very worrying time for everyone at the moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down, and made us anxious and uncertain about what lies ahead.
In times of trouble, our pets can be a fantastic support for us: the mental health benefits of pet ownership are well-documented, and cuddling our precious dogs and cats releases endorphins and calms us down. But are they at danger of catching COVID-19 themselves and falling ill? And could they even pass it on to us?
It’s the last thing we want to think about, of course, but what does science say?
COVID-19: the risks for you
To put your mind immediately at rest, there is no evidence that dogs or cats can infect their owners with COVID-19, so you definitely should not ostracize them from your lives. As with other surfaces, however, pets’ fur can pose a potential transmission risk if the right precautions are not taken.
Treat your dog as another member of your household. You would not let anyone in your household shake hands with a stranger while out and about due to the potential transmission risk, so don’t let anyone pet your dog, either. If they’re infected, droplets could pass on to your dog’s fur – and from there onto you, or another member of your household. For the same reasons, you should also discourage your dog interacting with other dogs – droplets could theoretically pass from the other dog’s fur and onto your dog’s fur, creating the same problem.
It’s important not to limit your dog’s exercise because of this, however. As research from Direct Line shows, dogs are in greater need of exercise than ever before – as many as one in eight dog owners are thought to have an overweight pet. Although the risk is small, it may be worth walking at quieter times or in quieter locations to minimise the chances of coming into contact with other people and their dogs.
For cat owners, it’s a bit trickier. Cats (especially outdoor cats) do their own thing, and so the contact they have with others is more difficult to police. Although the risk is small, it is possible that strangers may have petted your cat while they’re out and about in the neighbourhood. If you have an adventurous outdoor cat, you should wash your hands after petting them yourself – and, to be extra cautious, you should refrain from kissing them if at all possible. For some cat owners it may be an option to keep your cat indoors, with a litter tray, to minimise this risk. But this can be distressing for certain cats, especially if indoor space is limited, so owners must make the best decision for their particular circumstances.
COVID-19: the risks for them
The greatest risk our pets pose to us, then, is if their fur is contaminated by the virus and it passes onto us that way. But what about their own health? There have been recent reports of animals testing positive for the virus – such as a dog in Hong Kong, and even a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in the US. According to studies, cats seem to be particularly susceptible to COVID-19.
So what does this mean? Although pets can become infected, their illness does not seem to be as severe as it is in humans. Dogs, in particular, may test positive for the virus but be relatively untroubled by its presence – or even completely asymptomatic. Cats, however, are more likely to experience gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. As with any other illness, if your pet starts displaying symptoms it’s best to contact the vet for advice on treatment and symptom management.
Although, as already established, there is no evidence that pets can directly infect humans with the virus, it’s best to continue to wash your hands after contact with them and observe strict personal hygiene as you usually would. The greatest transmission risk your infected pet would pose is to other pets (especially cats), so for the sake of other pets’ health it’s best to keep them separate until their symptoms improve.
It’s a troubling and distressing time for all of us right now, but at least we know that our pets are still there for emotional support. Although it’s a good idea to wash our hands more frequently around them if they’ve been in the outside world, the risk of transmission is very small – and we can continue to cuddle them and play with them as we usually would.