Can I Catch COVID-19 From My Cat or Dog?
Current information about the transmission of COVID-19 from pets to people.
Posted May 20, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide concern and is directly affecting the way we relate to other animal species. People are concerned about transmission of COVID-19 to and from pets. Due to a lot of misinformation and confusion about COVID-19, people are understandably worried that either they can get COVID-19 from their dog/cat or that they can infect their dog/cat with the virus. This post will hopefully help separate fact from fiction.
Zoonosis is the study of any infectious disease (viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic) that can be transmitted from animals to humans, or from humans to animals. The disease must be capable of jumping species and mutating to survive in the new host environment. One of the most well-known zoonotic diseases is rabies—which can be easily transferred from an infected animal to a human, usually through a deep bite wound. One important factor to note is that the animal must come in contact with the illness first, before it can be transmitted to a human. If a raccoon (or dog, or chipmunk), never contracts rabies, they can not transmit rabies. The illness does not spontaneously appear in an animal. This is important when considering COVID-19 transmissions. If your dog, cat, or other pet, never comes in contact with COVID-19 then they certainly cannot transmit the virus to a human.
Before discussing potential solutions, we should discuss what exactly is COVID-19, why is it sometimes called "coronavirus" and can our pets actually get COVID-19?
Coronavirus vs. COVID-19
According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can affect birds and mammals, including humans. Many of these are zoonotic, originating in another species of animal and were eventually transmitted to humans (possibly through consuming infected animals). There are seven types of coronaviruses that have infected humans, the most well known are SARS and MERS. They are called a "coronavirus" because the word "corona" means crown in Latin and this group of viruses all have crown-like spikes when observed under a microscope.
There are many types of coronavirus that are contagious to animals (within their own species) or carried by animals but are not zoonotic (cannot be transmitted to humans). If you have a dog, you may be aware of the Bordetella virus (often called "kennel cough") which is highly contagious from dog to dog but cannot be contracted by people. If you live in a large city or your dog goes to dog daycare or boarding, it is likely that your dog got the Bordetella vaccine from their vet to protect them from this respiratory illness. Cats also are susceptible to contracting certain types of coronavirus, such as Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). This disease used to be 100% fatal in cats but there are now anecdotal reports that some cats may recover when given the drug Remdesivir (although it has not yet been licensed by the FDA). Yes, this is the same Remdesivir that is being tested as a potential treatment for COVID-19 and Ebola. These two types of coronaviruses are examples of species-specific viruses that are not transmittable to humans.
COVID-19 and Dogs
Scientists are still unsure whether we can transmit the COVID-19 type of coronavirus to other species of animals. Two dogs tested positive for COVID-19, but the researchers are unsure if the virus remained in the noses of the dogs, where they were swabbed, or if they dogs actually contracted the disease, since the dogs remained asymptomatic. We do know that dogs can carry a virus, like influenza or COVID-19, on their bodies, in their fur or on their paws. If someone with COVID-19 sneezes on your dog, then your dog will have the virus on their fur, and when you pet their fur, you may get the virus on your hand. This is easy to avoid, however. Scientists now recommend that you keep your dog away from any person who may have COVID-19 to prevent them from carrying the virus to other humans on their fur. Again, if your dog is not exposed to COVID-19, it cannot be a carrier of COVID-19.
COVID-19 and Cats
There are several large cats in a zoo and some pet cats that have also tested positive for COVID-19. Some had no symptoms while others showed signs of a mild respiratory illness. This clinical information suggests that perhaps humans can transmit COVID-19 to cats and that cats can contract the disease from humans. However, this probably unidirectional since there is no known instance of a human contracting COVID-19 from a cat. Just as with dogs, if your cat is not exposed to someone with COVID-19, they will never contract the virus.
Protect Yourself and Your Pets
Human medical and veterinary professionals have several suggestions for people with pets to keep all species safe (there is currently no evidence that other pets, such as rabbits, can contract the illness). Please keep your cats indoors or limit their exposure to other people and pets who may transmit the virus to them. Please restrict your dog's activity to limit their exposure to people or places or things that may be exposed to the virus. If you, or someone in your household, has contracted COVID-19, please refrain from interacting with your pet while you are symptomatic. Another household member should be available to care for your pet if you are not well. If you do not have someone to help you with your pet, and you have symptoms of COVID-19, please wear a mask and gloves when interacting with your pet to limit your pet's exposure to the virus.
It is tragic to see that beloved family pets are being killed due to a fear that we can contract the virus from them, when the fact is that we should actually be afraid of giving them the virus. Again, when an animal (human or other species) is not exposed to the virus, they cannot transmit the virus. You do not have to relinquish your pet because of fear of this disease. It is important, instead, to protect your pet. There is proof that they can get the virus from us but there is nothing to suggest that they can give it to us. We must protect them as we would protect any loved one from this awful illness.
Update: a dog recently contracted Covid-19 in the United States and passed away. However, the dog also had advanced lymphoma. It is unknown whether the dog died purely from the lymphoma or if the Covid-19 affected the dog's immune system and made it worse. As of yet, this is the only established case of a dog dying with Covid-19.
Zhang, S. (2020). A Much-Hyped COVID-19 Drug Is Almost Identical to a Black-Market Cat Cure. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/05/remdesivir-cats/611341/
Bekoff, M. (2020). "Don't Let Your Dog Put His Nose There, You Can't Trace It."
Bekoff, M. (2020) "I'm a Mess About My Dogs and Coronavirus—How Will They Do?"