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There is significant concern over the recent increase in Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) infection in the US and how to keep our pets safe. Since fear stems from misinformation, it is important to understand what a virus is, how a virus spreads, some specific information about coronaviruses, virus mutations, and whether pets are susceptible to COVID-19.
Can dogs or cats become infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Currently, the answer is “not that we know of.”
Are pets safe then?
For now, pets are safe. If you are infected with COVID-19, as far as we know, pets cannot become infected. For now, try to keep your pets close so that their socialization doesn’t inadvertently get you infected with coronavirus. Otherwise, continue following the CDC Prevention Guidelines to keep yourself healthy. If new evidence demonstrates that cats and dogs can be infected, we will let you know.
But what about the quarantined dog in Hong Kong?
How would a dog in China test (weakly) positive then? We have to explore the concept of fomites to answer that question.
A fomite (FOH-mite) is an object that can carry virus particles without being infected by them. To demonstrate the concept of fomites, pretend you were infected with the COVID-19 virus, and you decided to snuggle your outdoor cat before letting them go outside and roam the neighborhood. Your cat could, for a short amount of time, pass virus particles to any human who subsequently pet them. In this scenario, your cat was a fomite for coronavirus infection. If you performed a coronavirus test on that same cat, they may test weakly positive, not because they are infected with the virus, but because the virus is on them from your snuggle session.
COVID-19 vs. canine coronavirus and other types of coronavirus
Just like a coronavirus is one kind of virus, there are several types of coronaviruses. COVID-19 is one type of coronavirus. There are seven coronaviruses that can infect humans. There are also coronaviruses that can infect dogs (but not cats or humans) and those that can infect cats (but not dogs or humans).
One type of canine coronavirus can cause subclinical (no clinical signs) or mild diarrhea in dogs. Another canine coronavirus can cause respiratory disease (think kennel cough). Cats can also be infected with a coronavirus. Feline coronavirus causes subclinical to mild diarrhea in 99% of cats. Less than 1% of cats can develop a more severe coronavirus infection called FIP or Feline Infectious Peritonitis. Neither the canine nor the feline coronaviruses infect humans.
A virus is a microscopic parasite that cannot live or reproduce outside of a host body. A “host” refers to the organism or species (like humans, dogs or cats) that a virus is able to infect. Viruses, which are much smaller than the cells that make up our bodies, move between cells and infect them individually, and use cells to create copies of themselves.
Coronavirus is one type of virus much like a banana is one type of fruit. There are many types of viruses that infect different parts of the body. An intestinal virus, for example can cause vomiting, diarrhea and inappetence (not wanting to eat). Coronavirus is a respiratory virus (in humans) because it infects the cells of the respiratory tract (nasal passages, bronchi, bronchioles, and lung tissue) and causes respiratory symptoms such as coughing, runny nose, sneezing and sore throat.
How do viruses spread?
Since viruses need to live within a host to survive, they can only move from one person to another through the sick individual’s secretions. When someone coughs, sneezes or has a runny nose, they are involuntarily spreading the virus through the fluid they are expelling. Tiny fluid droplets that are spread into the surrounding area carry virus particles. If these particles land on someone else, or if someone were to touch a surface covered with these droplets, and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth, the individual will likely become infected, and the virus would start reproducing in the new host.
What does it mean that the coronavirus is “novel”?
The term “Novel Coronavirus” means that this is the first time we have seen this type of coronavirus in humans.
From what we know so far, COVID-19 seems to have originated from bats in China, and mutated to be able to infect humans. This does not mean the coronavirus can pass back and forth between humans and animals, but instead that the bat virus has become a human virus.
When the coronavirus in China mutated into COVID-19 to be able to infect humans, it demonstrated a virus’ ability to change themselves when conditions are appropriate. When a virus develops a mutation that gives it a new ability, scientists can see changes in a virus, such as severity of infection or a species shift. Now that you understand how viruses can change themselves you understand that in theory, COVID-19 has the potential to mutate to infect dogs and/or cats. Although such a mutation is unlikely, it is impossible to predict.