In every case, the pet is believed to have contracted the virus from a human – not the other way around. 4 PM production/Shutterstock

In rare situations, it appears that pets can contract SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the respiratory illness COVID-19 – but it’s complicated.

Experts believe that pets becoming infected with the novel coronavirus are not only rare but that the “risk of transmission to humans is negligible compared to the risk of human-to-human transmission.”

No Evidence That A Pet Can Infect Their Owner

The World Health Organization contends that “to date, there is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit COVID-19.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds that the organization does “not have evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19” but notes that further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be infected by the disease. Experts agree that the current spread of the virus is through human-to-human transmission and not the result of pets or other animals.

“Now that COVID-19 virus infections are widely distributed in the human population there is a possibility for some animals to become infected through close contact with infected humans,” says the World Organization for Animal Health. “Studies are underway to better understand the susceptibility of different animal species to the COVID-19 virus and to assess infection dynamics in susceptible animal species. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that animals infected by humans are playing a role in the spread of COVID-19.”

Chinese researchers found that cats can become infected with the virus and spread it to other cats, but dogs do not appear to be as susceptible to the infection. Pre-print research published in bioRxiv suggested that cats and ferrets can be infected and transmit to other animals, adding to evidence from a 2003 article in Nature that found SARS, a coronavirus closely related to SARS-CoV-2, could also infect ferrets and cats.

Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots. CDC

Animals Appear To Contract Coronavirus From Their Owners

However, a number of cases around the world have shown that pets and animals can become infected with the virus.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive for the virus after developing a dry cough, becoming the first known case of a non-domesticated animal with COVID-19 symptoms. It is believed that three additional lions and three tigers may also be infected. Last week, a cat in Belgium became the world’s first feline to test positive for the virus after its owner had returned from Italy a week earlier. The animal showed symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, and shallow breathing, suggesting that an “animal can carry the virus just like objects,” according to experts at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Liège and a newsletter posted by the government Science Committee. Before that, officials in Hong Kong reported that two dogs had tested positive for the virus despite a lack of symptoms.
 
In every case, the pet is believed to have contracted the virus from a human – not the other way around.
 
Nadia, a 4-year-old female Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo, tested positive for COVID-19. She, her sister Azul, two Amur tigers, and three African lions had developed a dry cough and all are expected to recover. WCS/Bronx Zoo

The Evolution Of Coronaviruses

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some of which cause illness in humans and others that affect certain types of animals. Although rare, coronaviruses can spread to people after infecting animals, as was the case in the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and the 2012 Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) pandemic.

SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have originated and animals and spread to people.

Though the exact source of the virus is not known, the first infections have been linked to a live animal market in Wuhan, China. Further research suggests that it may be connected to wild animals such as pangolins or bats.

How To Keep Your Pets Safe

For now, the American Kennel Club says that pet owners in the US do not need to do anything other than maintain good hygiene like washing hands and avoid sharing kisses, food, or other contact that could spread respiratory droplets.

Under no circumstances should an owner abandon their pet, but if someone becomes ill, the CDC recommends restricting contact with pets and other animals in the same way as one would people. During this time, have another member of the household care for the animal and avoid contact with the pet (no kisses or snuggles).

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