There have a been a lot of articles that tell you what COVID-19 (the new name for the latest coronavirus) does to humans, but what about animals? There are about 90 million pet dogs in the U.S. and a similar number of cats. Can dogs and cats get COVID-19? Can they pass it on to humans or vice-versa? What does coronavirus infection look like in these animals?
Certainly, this has been on the mind of many pet owners, especially in areas at risk. You can even find companies that make dog masks and other personal protection gear for pets.
The coronavirus family is known to infect birds, bats, cows, pigs, camels, dogs, cats, mice, and other animals. Although thought to be present in animals for thousands of years, human coronaviruses were first discovered around 1960. Seven different strains are seen in humans, including COVID-19, Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Indeed, other coronavirus strains may be responsible for 15-25% of all common colds.
Like most viruses, coronavirus is species-specific: that is,
it prefers a particular host creature. That is, a cat coronavirus usually won’t
make a dog ill. That means that the new COVID-19 may be specific to human
beings. Family dogs or cats don’t won’t give COVID-19 to their owners (I can’t
say the same for the family bat, though). Coronaviruses and other viruses
(including Ebola) often originate in bats.
When a virus jumps from one species to another, it’s likely due to some kind of mutation. As an RNA virus, coronaviruses are prone to mutate more than DNA viruses. This make the possibility of species-to-species transmission somewhat more likely (but still not common).
In humans and poultry, the virus attacks the respiratory tract, while it infects the intestinal tract in livestock like cattle and pigs. Dogs and cats are also mostly affected in the G.I. tract, although one variety of coronavirus (Canine Respiratory Coronavirus) causes respiratory infections in dogs.
CORONAVIRUS IN DOGS
Canine coronavirus causes a highly infectious intestinal
infection in dogs. The disease is usually seen in puppies and doesn’t last
long, but can cause significant abdominal pain while it’s active. It is occasionally fatal (rarely) to young
dogs. No one breed is more susceptible
Most cases of canine coronavirus are spread by oral contact
with infected feces. A dog may also get the infection by eating from contaminated
bowls or by direct contact with an infected dog (the same can be said for cats
and other animals).
To answer a specific question by a reader: Although an
airborne virus can get on a dog’s fur, a more common source would be fecal
matter that contaminated the coat. Close contact could pass it from dog to dog
or cat to cat.
The most typical symptom in dogs is explosive diarrhea.
Logically, that would be the most likely way that fur is contaminated. The
diarrhea is often sudden in onset and may be accompanied by lethargy, fever,
vomiting, and decreased appetite. The stool has a foul odor and appears
yellow-green or orange-colored. It may contain blood or mucus, as well. Some symptoms may appear similar to that of
the more-dangerous parvovirus or distemper.
The time from the virus invading the dog’s body and symptoms
is about one to four days and most have recovered by ten days after getting
sick. Complications like opportunistic bacterial or parasitic infections can
occur that hinder recovery. Once well, the animal may serve as a carrier of the
disease for up to six months, so hand-washing after handling your dog is a wise
Treatment is supportive in nature; intravenous fluids and
antibiotics can treat secondary bacterial infections and dehydration. To
prevent the infection, it’s necessary to enforce strict sanitation practices
and keep any sick dogs away from healthy ones.
For prevention, consider the vaccine for canine coronavirus.
Since the infection rarely kills, veterinarians often don’t make it part of the
routine vaccinations given. Factors
depend on how many dogs are together on a regular basis as well as a history of
the virus in the area.
Coronavirus in kennels can be destroyed with simple
household disinfectants. Sunlight and dry environments will also help destroy
the virus. To reduce the moisture in your home, use a dehumidifier. Take your
dog’s bedding outside and place in the sun for a few hours.
Make a conscious effort to avoid areas where dog feces
exist, such as dog parks
CORONAVIRUS IN CATS
In Feline coronavirus (FCoV), the cat is often asymptomatic. When the virus mutates, however, it causes symptoms that make infection more lethal than in the canine version.
There are four possible end results of infection with coronavirus:
There are 4 possible outcomes of exposure to FCoV infection:
The cat is resistant to the virus. A small
percentage of cats are completely resistant and don’t shed virus as a carrier.
sheds FCoV for a period of time ranging from one to nine months, develop antibodies
and are not contagious.
That cat becomes a lifetime FCoV carrier but are
The cat develops a condition called Feline
Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), usually a fatal condition.
Viruses mutate. When it does, Feline coronavirus may lead to a condition called Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).
FIP is very contagious and carries a high mortality rate because of its aggressive nature. Cats will develop diarrhea and fever, but other symptoms depend on the strain of virus, the organs affected, and the general health of the animal. You can expect to see the cat become lethargic and depressed. It may lose the luster of its coat.
There are two forms of FIP: “wet” and “dry”. The wet forms targets body cavities while the dry form targets specific organs. The wet form causes fluid accumulation and usually progresses faster than the dry, carrying a 95% mortality rate. While each type causes fever and loose stools, some cats will experience liver dysfunction leading to jaundice. FIP is more commonly seen in multi-cat households as these share litter boxes and food/water bowls.
Treatment for FIP is mostly supportive and aims to extend
life rather than cure the disease. intravenous antibiotic and fluids may be given to treat secondary bacterial
infections and dehydration. To prevent the infection, it’s necessary to enforce
strict sanitation practices and keep any sick dog or cat away from others of
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to prevent FCoV
(and FIP) is to enforce strict litter box hygiene. Be sure to remove feces as often
as possible. Use dedicated poop scoops for each cat box.
Make sure that there are enough litter boxes, preferably one
for each cat. Covered, self-cleaning boxes kept far from food areas are
preferable. Non-tracking cat litter minimizes spread of microscopic particles
around the house. Once or twice a week, clean your litter tray with a 1:10 chlorine
bleach solution. domestic bleach is preferable to pine-based items which may be
harmful to cats.
For both dogs and cats, treatment is supportive in nature;
intravenous fluids and antibiotics can treat secondary bacterial infections and
dehydration. To prevent the infection, it’s necessary to enforce strict
sanitation practices and keep any sick dog or cat away from others of its
The bottom line from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): WHO reports that no reported cases of coronavirus COVID-19 have been reported in companion animals like dogs and cats. The CDC suggests that visitors to China avoid both live and dead animals, but add that there is no reason to think that any pets in the United States may be a source of infection with COVID-19.
I’ll leave you with a hypothetical situation: If I have COVID-19 and sneeze on your dog, will you contaminate yourself if you pet it afterwards and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes? The dog can’t, as far as we know, have the human version of the virus in its body, but it could have it on its fur. That’s what would have to happen for you to get COVID-19 from a companion animal.
Joe Alton MD
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