25th Mar, 2020

By Jenni Davies

Covid-19 is creating widespread panic and fear across the world. Tragically, due to fear and lack of understanding, pets are now finding themselves in the line of fire. Animal welfares are reporting a surge in surrendered animals with the reason given that their owners think they’ll get Covid-19 from their pets.

We find out if you can catch Covid-19 from pet animals and if it’s possible for them to catch it from us.

The answer is “no”

The World Health Organisation (WHO), American Centre for Disease Control (CDC), and South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases, amongst other international experts, are in agreement: you cannot get Covid-19 from pets or livestock, or even wildlife.

Professor John Frean, Deputy Director of Microbiology, and Head of the Parasitology Reference Laboratory at the SA Centre for Emerging Zoonotic and Parasitic Diseases, agrees: “There is no suggestion or evidence that common companion animals or livestock are involved in transmission. People should concentrate on following the guidelines for prevention of person-to-person spread.”

The World Organisation for Animal Health, an internationally recognised animal disease control organisation with 182 member countries, states: “The current spread of Covid-19 is a result of human-to-human transmission… there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare.”

But why can’t we catch it from them? In order to understand this, one needs to know a little about viruses.

How viruses work

In a nutshell, viruses are not “living” – they’re pieces of genetic material (either RNA or DNA). They’re not made of cells, they don’t need to “eat” (consume energy), and they don’t reproduce by dividing cells, unlike bacteria.

Because of the way they reproduce, viruses are generally very specific where they can survive; most can only infect one type of animal, and they need particular conditions like moisture and temperature levels, which is why they generally don’t survive long outside the body. A handful of viruses can be spread by animal-human contact – these are called zoonoses; most are only spread between the same species.

They reproduce by going into a body cell using special proteins as a kind of “key” to get in. Just as not all keys fit all locks, not all viruses can enter all cells – this is why they’re generally so highly specific as to who/what they can infect.

Once they’ve “broken in”, they hijack the cell’s own ability to reproduce in order to make copies of themselves. All the copies then burst out of the cell and go on to hijack (infect) other cells. This is how we get sick.

But they don’t stay in your body – actions like sneezing and coughing are a way in which the virus manages to travel outside your body and get into someone else’s, where they hijack cells… and the process starts again.

Sometimes a copy is not identical to the original – this happens frequently, particularly in RNA viruses (which coronaviruses are). This slightly different copy is known as a mutation, and it will keep being copied, creating a changed virus. Think of it like a photocopy: if you smudge a page, and keep copying that page, all the copies will have that smudge on them.

In some cases, this change benefits the virus, such as allowing it to hide from the immune system (like HIV), affect different organs, or, in some rare cases, change the type of animal it can infect. This last one is what scientists say happened with Covid-19.

Coronavirus vs Covid-19

It’s crucial that people don’t automatically think “coronavirus” equals “Covid-19”. Coronaviruses are an entire family of viruses, only seven of which make humans sick. Four of the human coronaviruses are mild, causing symptoms similar to a common cold. Only three are potentially serious – Covid-19 is one of these three.

Think of it like the citrus family: naartjies and lemons are both citrus, but they’re not the same fruit. Likewise, Covid-19 is A coronavirus but not THE coronavirus. And, yes, there are coronaviruses that infect animals and not humans (for example, bovine coronavirus, which causes diarrhoea in cows), but these are not Covid-19. 

Calling Covid-19 simply “coronavirus” has caused unnecessary panic, as people think all coronaviruses are dangerous and that if animals can get a type of coronavirus, this will cause Covid-19.

Once you know that not all coronaviruses are the same, it’s easier to understand that your pets aren’t going to give you Covid-19.

Where the “pet myth” came from

Why do people think they can catch it from pets? Because they misunderstood reports that scientists think the virus might have mutated from a type of animal coronavirus; many members of the public took this to mean that “all animals transmit Covid-19”. This was then worsened when certain parties in South Africa spread misinformation on posters stating that people shouldn’t touch stray animals in case they caught it from them.

Scientists theorise that it might have started from a bat-specific coronavirus then changed to infect another animal (an “intermediate host” – possibly pangolin), before mutating into a new virus infecting humans – a novel coronavirus aka Covid-19. However, they’re still not sure if this is really what happened, and at no point are companion animals thought to have been involved (they can see this through genetic testing).

The CDC states: “While this virus seems to have emerged from an animal source, it is now spreading from person to person.” They also state that canine and feline coronaviruses only infect animals and not humans. They emphasise that there’s no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets, livestock, or wildlife, might be a source of Covid-19 infection.

In short: all scientific evidence indicates that you cannot get Covid-19 from pets.

Can your pets catch it from you?

Pet owners who love their companion animals are understandably worried that, if they get Covid-19, they could make their beloved pets ill. Fortunately, this seems to not be possible, despite what some online articles may say.

A recent alarmist story circulated that a Hong Kong dog thought to possibly have coronavirus had died. However, if we examine the facts, the dog did not, in fact, have Covid-19. The dog was a very old Toy Pomeranian (17 years old) and likely died of severe stress following a week of intensive testing in a Chinese government lab. Its owner had Covid-19 (and has recovered), and the dog initially had a very weak positive result for coronavirus following a nasal/oral swab. Multiple further blood and mucus tests showed no sign of any coronavirus or Covid-19, and the dog had no signs of the virus. He was returned to his 60-year-old owner after all this and died shortly thereafter. This is, to date, the only case in which a dog was thought to have Covid-19.

It’s always important to observe good hygiene when you have pets, both to protect yourself and them. This includes cleaning up after them daily, and washing your hands after cleaning, petting or playing with them, and before you eat. 

The CDC recommends the following to people with Covid-19, just in case:

  • People sick with Covid-19 should limit contact with animals until more is known about the virus.
  • When possible, have another [person] care for your animals while you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food.
  • If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with them.

Essential service

Pets still need looking after – and they can still get sick or be injured. Dr Candice Cooper, veterinarian at Gardens Pet Clinic & Spa in Cape Town, explains that the SA government has deemed veterinary services and vet shops as essential services (meaning they don’t have to shut during lockdown).

She adds: “Should your pet become ill for other reasons, or if you need food or medication for them, your vet will be able to help. Gardens’ Vet Clinic, for example, will be operating on a skeleton staff with only essential team members coming in, so it’s more important than ever to book appointments.”

Stop the spread

As Prof. Frean says, we should focus on following all the precautions for preventing person-to-person spread. The World Health Organisation advises:

  • Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or washing them with soap and water.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or a tissue; dispose of the used tissue immediately.
  • If you feel unwell, stay home, away from other people, and call your doctor or clinic. If you have high-risk people in your life (e.g. elderly or immune compromised), stay away from them – wearing a mask yourself may help reduce the possibility of you passing it on to them.

This is always good advice to prevent spread of any droplet-borne illness, be it the common cold or Covid-19.

Note: If you have to give up your pet due to loss of income, please don’t just dump them; rather try to rehome them responsibly with home checks and follow-ups.