When news of a new and unpredictable virus overwhelms the headlines, our instincts to protect ourselves and our loved ones activate. In the early days of an epidemic, it’s hard to know how to respond: How relevant is this news to our daily lives? Is it all media hype, or should we change our behaviour? Does this illness really pose a significant risk to ourselves and our pets? Can our pets possibly put us at risk during this time?
The Coronaviruses That We Know
There are numerous known variations of coronaviruses that affect humans, animals and birds. These viruses can cause a variety of symptoms. Illness is usually very mild, but occasionally can be severe or even life-threatening. Some of these viruses can be transmitted between species, and between animals and humans. Some coronaviruses have been known to mutate; changing their behaviour and their preferred host species. All of these factors are good reasons to monitor new coronaviruses closely and exercise an abundance of caution when it comes to response and infection control.
Veterinarians are already quite familiar with a couple of coronaviruses that infect dogs and cats. Canine Enteric Coronavirus, and Feline Enteric Coronavirus are both fairly common pathogens. These alpha coronaviruses are shed and transmitted through the feces primarily. In most cases, infected pets show no signs of illness at all. Diarrhea (usually mild) can occur transiently, particularly in puppies. A small percentage of cats infected with enteric coronavirus will develop a more serious chronic illness known as Feline Infectious Peritonitis, or FIP.
Vaccines are available for both known canine and feline coronaviruses; however, when considering the effectiveness of the vaccines compared to the severity of the illness, and the risks of adverse reaction to any vaccine, most veterinarians do not recommend vaccinating the average pet against enteric coronavirus.
The Coronavirus That We Don’t Know
COVID-19, the illness caused by the newly identified coronavirus (now called SARS-CoV-19) appeared in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019. Most infected individuals have mild or no symptoms, but an important fraction of patients develop pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. Severe illness is more likely in older individuals and those who are already dealing with chronic diseases. The virus is spread by aerosols: contaminated water droplets expelled from the nose or mouth of an infected individual, particularly by coughing or sneezing. People in close contact with infected persons (family, household members, health workers), are most at risk for contracting the virus.
Two dogs and a cat, each living with an infected individual, have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. In each case, repeat testing suggested that the pets were truly infected with the virus. Both dogs showed no signs of illness, and were held in quarantine until they tested negative and were released. The cat did have respiratory symptoms and diarrhea, but it has not been determined if these signs are related to the virus. At this time, although these cases suggest that dogs can carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we do not know if dogs can become ill due to the virus, and we do not know if dogs can transmit the virus to humans, dogs or other animals. Cats are theoretically better hosts for the virus, but we are not certain that they can become sick due to the virus, and we do not know if they can transmit it. Due to the patterns of transmission of the disease so far, it is not currently suspected that pets play any role in the spread of the virus.
Many viruses can incubate in non-host species, but do not cause illness, and do not shed in great enough quantities to infect other individuals (animal or human). Veterinarians worldwide are hopeful that this will be the case for dogs and SARS-CoV-2.
SARS-CoV-2 is a beta coronavirus, whereas canine and feline enteric coronaviruses and FIP are alpha coronaviruses. There is no evidence to suggest that canine and feline enteric coronavirus vaccines would provide any protection against respiratory coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2. Veterinarians should not encourage any increase or change in the use of the currently available vaccines in the face of this epidemic.
Pet owners should re-commit to the common-sense infection-control procedures that have always been recommended.
- Follow your local health official’s recommendations for social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine.
- Wash your hands before and after handling your pets, eating, preparing food and using the bathroom.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue or the bend of your elbow.
- Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.
- Stay home if you are unwell.
- Keep your pet separate from other people and animals if either you or your pet are unwell.
- Avoid face-to-face contact with your pets (kissing, licking, close cuddling and bed-sharing), particularly if you or your pet is unwell.
- Keep a distance of more than two metres from people and animals who are sick.
- Do not allow dogs and cats to roam at large. Keeps cats indoors, and only allow dogs out on a leash or in a fenced yard.
Our understanding of this disease is changing rapidly as more information is being collected. Your veterinarian is your best source of reliable information on how to keep your furry family members healthy today and every day.
For more information about coronavirus as it relates to your pets, visit the World Small Animal Veterinary Association at www.wsava.org, the World Health Organization at www.who.int, and the Worms and Germs Blog at https://www.wormsandgermsblog.com/.
Written by: Dr. Sperry, DVM
The information provided and contained herein are the opinions of PTZ Insurance Services Ltd. which are based on external publication. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice.