A large family of RNA viruses, Coronaviridae (Crown) owes its name to the protein spikes that surround its lipid envelope. Although humans are the main host and driver of the current COVID-19 pandemic, CoV infection is, in fact, common in both humans and animals, animals having their own different types of coronaviruses with different symptoms, such as feline enteric coronavirus (alpha or phylogroup 1 genus) in cats which is a gastrointestinal form of coronavirus causing diarrhea, bovine coronavirus in cattle, canine coronavirus in dogs (causing respiratory disease, known as “kennel cough.”), etc.
Which Animals Can Contract The COVID-19?
As already mentioned, animals have their own types of coronaviruses, this doesn’t mean they are immune from this disease. It’s been observed that some animals, mostly pets, have contracted COVID-19, the reason being their close contact with a COVID patient, like a 17-year-old Pomeranian from Hong Kong (whose owner was COVID positive), tested a “weak positive”.
In the case of the Pomeranian, the samples taken from its nasal and oral cavities tested positive, whereas its rectal swab and fecal sample tested negative. The PCR testing displayed a “weak positive” result several times. Further serological testing on the blood sample of the pomeranian displayed positive results, implying that it had developed an immune response to the virus. As for the pet cat, it was tested for COVID after the results of using RT-PCR for SARS-CoV-2 via oral cavity and nasal samples yielded positive results.
Another 2 years old German Shepherd tested positive. It was later reported that the dog had developed neutralizing antibodies to the virus yielding a negative test 10 days after being tested positive for the same.
Although several dogs and cats (mostly pets) have tested COVID positive, in all the cases there has been a human to animal transfer. Since the number of positive cases for cats has been more, there is speculation that cats are somewhat more susceptible to the virus. However, researchers are trying to understand the vulnerability of other animal species as well.
Preliminary laboratory findings have suggested that cats are also able to transmit this infection to other felines. Dogs were seen to be somewhat resistant to the disease and were less likely to transmit it to other animals once infected. Egyptian fruit bats didn’t show any signs of this disease after being infected in the lab setting neither did they transmit the infection to other bats.
Lab Tests For COVID-19
The Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL), has developed and validated a laboratory test for SARS-CoV-2 that uses real-time Reverse-Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test conducted on the oral, nasal, rectal or fecal samples of the infected animals. Great care is taken in order to avoid any sort of contamination of specimens through either the environment or by humans.
Note that the RT-PCR test is sensitive, specific, and doesn’t cross-react with the other coronaviruses of dogs or cats yielding an appropriate result.
In some cases, gene sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 was also done to analyze whether or not the viral sequences of the human and the companion animal were similar like in the case of the Pomeranian (which were found to be very similar). Apart from gene sequencing, serological testing has also been conducted on the blood samples of the infected animals to check whether or not they have developed an antibody against the virus.
Symptoms Of COVID-19 In Pets
There have been a couple of cases in which animals have contracted this disease, although the symptoms have been different in each, there has been one thing in common and that is at some point they came in contact with a COVID positive human. As of now, there are several cases of human to animal transmission and none of the animal to human transmission.
Here’s an overview of the symptoms there have been in case of pets that were positive:
In the third week of March, (FASFC) the Federal Agency for Safety of the Food Chain in Belgium reported that the viral RNA of SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the fecal and vomit samples of a cat. The cat showed symptoms like vomiting, and difficulty breathing. The cat was tested positive a week after it’s the owner was.
In the Bronx Zoo case, the Malayan tiger showed some respiratory signs that were later on tested to be positive after a PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2. Similar symptoms were observed in 2 Amur tigers, and 3 African lions. In some cases wheezing (without a nasal or ocular discharge) and mild anorexia was also noted.
On 23rd April, 2 cats tested positive for COVID-19 in New York. The first cat was in close contact with a person suffering from a short respiratory illness (the person’s ailment wasn’t confirmed to be COVID-19). In the case of the second cat, it had symptoms like coughing and a slightly runny nose.
To sum up, in almost all the cases of animals testing COVID positive there have been either respiratory or gastrointestinal or both signs. However, there have been asymptomatic cases of animals as well. Like in the case of the Pomeranian dog in Hong Kong – they didn’t show any signs of the viral disease but still tested positive. The spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department clarified that to date there isn’t any evidence of an animal to human transmission.
What Should Be Considered As An Emergency If A Pet Owner Calls?
If a pet owner is suspicious of its pet suffering from COVID-19 do the following:
- Understand the symptoms, mostly respiratory or gastrointestinal.
- Help them through Skype or FaceTime, if possible.
- Ask the owner whether or not the pet came in contact with a COVID positive person, and if they or anyone in their household has symptoms of COVID or tested positive for COVID.
The tests should be conducted only if one of the following is true:
- The animal has been in close contact with a COVID positive human or was in an area where the outbreak occurred and is now displaying new signs of illness mostly respiratory or gastrointestinal (Fever, Coughing, Breathlessness, Lethargy, Nasal discharge, Vomiting or Diarrhea).
- Animals living in shelters where a lot of animals have shown concerning signs of illness.
- The animal is asymptomatic living in a zoo facility with possible COVID-19 exposure.
Contact your state public health veterinarian immediately for advice on what further steps need to be adopted before coming into contact with a pet owner or pet concerned about COVID. The Public Health and Veterinary Services need to work together using a One Health approach to discuss and share information and assess the risk associated with COVID-19 positive human reports of being in contact with a pet or other animals.
What HealthCare Routines Vets Need To Follow?
At present, the World Health Organization has clearly stated that “on the basis of the evidence it has received, human-to-human transmission remains the main driver of the pandemic“. And since animals and humans have at times shared diseases like Rabies or Tuberculosis, it’s highly recommended to have limited contact with companion animals. There have been several surveys where 1000s of pet cats, dogs, and horses as well have tested negative for the new coronavirus(mostly in South Korea, the US, Hong Kong). However, in another study conducted in some feral felines in China, implied their previous encounter with the pathogen owing to the fact they had developed antibodies against this virus.
Although there’s nothing to worry about while living with pets it’s always recommended to follow basic hygiene measures:
- Prefer using FaceTime or Skype to treat as many cases as possible.
- Analyze which patients need urgent care and prioritize accordingly.
- In case a pet owner is sick, either treat them through telemedicine or arrange for someone else to bring in the sick animal.
- Implement sanitization and disinfection protocols for communal surfaces within your office.
- Encourage frequent handwashing among your staff.
- Don’t allow sick staff to work in your clinic.
- Lookout for COVID-19 symptoms in people around you.
- Make sure you have the contact details of your local health department and engage with them whenever you feel it necessary, in order to guide you on safely delivering veterinary care to your patients.
- Contact your local health department immediately if a staff member has a travel history to a region with widespread transmission.
- People who are infected with COVID-19 should avoid contact with their pets, including petting, kissing, or sharing food with them. In case another person is present in the house, he/she should feed and care for the pet. However, if the ill person must provide the care, he/she should properly wash their hands before as well as after interacting with the pet. And don’t forget to put on a mask.
- Routine tests of animals should be avoided.
With that said, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and also the World Health Organization (WHO) have emphasized the fact that as of now there isn’t any evidence the companion animals (including pets) can spread COVID-19.
We are all in this together and we have to work together to eradicate this disease from our planet. For now, the Public Health and Veterinary Services need to work together when it comes to sharing information and assessing the risk associated with close contact between a COVID positive person and animals.
Although the COVID-19 positive animals should be kept away from the ones who haven’t been yet exposed to the virus, the vet authorities should also make sure that COVID-19 doesn’t lead to mistreatment of animals or inappropriate measures being taken against them.
Online Veterinarian Directories like Great Vet have a comprehensive list of all the veterinarians and animal hospitals in major cities of America and are helpful for anyone searching for Vets in their area.