Author: Karen L. McGlothlin, DVM, PhD
The world is a whole different place than what we knew three months ago. The spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), commonly referred to as COVID-19, has changed the way we do things in most aspects of our daily lives. With all of the unknowns regarding this virus, these are frightening times; however, it is important that we educate ourselves along the way and stay current on the changing information (leading to changing recommendations) as things evolve.
In the veterinary medical world, we are familiar with a few different coronaviruses, as they cause some of the diseases that we see regularly in our work. Coronaviruses are members of the family Coronaviridae, subfamily Coronavirinae. This subfamily includes a variety of viral pathogens that cause veterinary diseases including respiratory illness, pneumonia, gastroenteritis, reproductive disease, hepatitis, and others. The most commonly encountered coronaviral illness encountered in companion animal medicine are canine coronavirus, which can cause mild to severe gastroenteritis and diarrhea, and feline coronavirus, which can cause illness ranging from mild gastroenteritis and diarrhea to feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a fatal, non-treatable disease. While vaccines have been developed for some of the different veterinary coronaviral diseases with varying success, none of those coronaviral diseases share antigenicity with the COVID-19 pathogen; therefore, our veterinary vaccines are not protective against SARS-CoV-2.
At the time of this post, there were reports of a few companion animals having tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. It is likely that you have read or heard about these particular cases, all pets belonging to people who tested positive for COVID-19: a 17 year old Pomeranian in Hong Kong; a 2 year old German Shepherd, also in Hong Kong; a cat in Hong Kong; and a cat in Belgium. None of these animals showed any evidence of clinical disease. In addition, on April 5, 2020, a four-year old female Malayan tiger in the Bronx Zoo showing clinical signs consistent with respiratory illness tested positive for the virus. Six other big cats at the zoo developed similar clinical signs but were not tested due to the necessity of being placed under general anesthesia for sample collection for confirmation. In that case, an asymptomatic zookeeper was presumed to be the source of infection.
The development of clinical disease in cats is not entirely a surprise. Collaborative research between faculty members at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has resulted in the identification of the receptor that SARS-CoV-2 uses to get into cells in the human body. SARS-CoV-2 uses angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) as its binding site to enter cells. In comparing the composition of ACE2 in other species, they have determined that cats, ferrets, pigs, and some non-human primates possess favorable contact sites in their ACE2 and may be susceptible to the virus, as well.
While there are a lot of unknowns at this time, please be reassured that the risk of contracting COVID-19 from your pet is likely very low. If a person with pets is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is highly unlikely that any pet(s) could spread the disease and should not, for any reason, be removed from the home, relinquished to shelters, or euthanized. Instead, consider the following recommendations:
- Prepare an emergency kit for your pet that includes a two weeks’ supply of your pet’s food and any medications and/or supplements that your pet is currently taking, in the event that you or members of your household are quarantined.
- Pet owners affected by COVID-19 should isolate themselves away from their pets, just as they do from other members of the household. If possible, another member of the household should take care of any pets.
- If there are no additional people in the household, the owner should wear a face mask around pets and practice good hygiene, including regular hand washing before and after contact with pets and regular washing of food and water dishes, pet bedding and toys.
- If a pet becomes ill after contact with someone who is positive for COVID-19, contact your veterinarian. You veterinarian can contact the state public health veterinarian and will be able to assist you with any recommendations regarding hospitalization and testing.
Most importantly, take care of yourselves and your pets in these unprecedented and frightening times. We are dealing with stressful experiences that none of us have encountered before, and it is imperative that we practice kindness, respect, concern and empathy for others. If your pet needs help, know that we at Lawndale Veterinary Hospital will be here for you – with limited staffing and currently reduced hours to keep our staff, our clients, and our patients safe.