Whether or not your cat can become infected with the COVID-19 virus has produced some confusion. While some reports have surfaced that pets cannot contract the virus, other reports say it is still possible. So what’s the truth?
“The facts haven’t really changed, although we continue to develop more nuanced understanding,” said Dr. Kate Creevy, associate professor of small animal internal medicine and the Mark Chapman Chair in Shelter Medicine at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
To begin with, she said, the name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2. The name of the illness that people get is COVID-19. Currently, there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is being transmitted between people and pets, or from pet-to-pet, Creevy said.
“Also, there are no reports of a person becoming ill with COVID-19 after acquiring the virus from a dog or cat,” she said. “With thousands and thousands of cases diagnosed around the world, this type of transmission has not yet been shown to happen, which tells us that it is rare, if it happens at all.”
Creevy said there is a case of a dog in Hong Kong whose owner was sick with COVID-19 that tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in its mouth and nose on two separate occasions. As far as anyone can tell, she said, the dog was never sick. At about the same time, another dog tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 as well.
“The owner of the dog in Hong Kong, who was sick, was spreading viral particles around the home environment and contaminating various surfaces,” Creevy said. “It is possible that the dog may have licked the owner or otherwise contacted these contaminated surfaces, and the virus in its nose and mouth was detected by scientists. The virus may or may not have remained alive while in the dog.”
Creevy said the dog never showed signs of illness with COVID-19. The dog was old at the time the incident happened – 17 years-old – and has since died. She said the dog’s cause of death is not known.
Creevy added that because the virus was detected in the nose and mouth of the dog in Hong Kong, it is possible that this kind of transmission could occur. She said it is possible that a sick person could sneeze or cough, and that a dog could lick up these droplets and then lick someone else. In this way, the dog would not have to be sick, but it could simply transport the virus from a sick person to a well person.
“As far as we can tell, this is a very, very, unlikely occurrence, but it could happen,” Creevy said. “Even if some dogs are exposed to SARS-CoV-2 virus in this way, it is unlikely to make them sick. That is because viruses have ways of getting into cells that depend on the species being infected. This SARS-CoV-2 virus does a very good job of getting into human cells by using a certain type of receptor on human cells.”
She said that this receptor on dog cells is not very similar to the human version, and that is why SARS-CoV-2 virus is not likely to be very effective at making dogs sick. Based on previous similar viruses, she said it’s possible that SARS-CoV-2 may be better at getting inside cat cells than dog cells.
“But so far, there have not been any reports of cats testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Again, if this is happening, it is rare,” Creevy added.
She noted that currently, veterinarians are not testing pets for this virus in any routine way. Tests for pets are available in a research setting only.
She said the most important things for people to understand remain the same – the most common way that people get infected is from other people.
“Social distancing and handwashing are the most effective things people can do to protect themselves from transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” Creevy said. “If you or someone in your household becomes sick, it is important to minimize the contact of the sick person with other people in the house to avoid spreading the virus to the other people.”
This includes keeping at a distance, not touching hands or faces, and not sharing personal items like face towels, she said. It also makes sense for the sick person to avoid contact with family pets.
“This is primarily intended to decrease the chance that the pets could pick up virus particles from the sick person and carry those viruses to the other people,” Creevy said. “But if there is even a small chance that a pet will ultimately be diagnosed with illness from SARS-CoV-2, they should avoid contact with people who are ill.”