There have been a lot of stories in the news and shared online about animals and COVID-19. From tigers contracting the virus to the risk to your domestic cat, the variation in information and advice is changing on a daily basis.

Animals have been central to the discussion on COVID-19. We know that the coronavirus (called Sars-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19) is thought to have originated in wildlife and been passed to humans via a live animal market in Wuhan. FactCheckNI have taken three of the most frequently occurring claims and explored what information lies behind them as well as asking if you should be taking any of it into consideration when dealing with your dogs, cats, and other pets.

Can you catch COVID-19 from your pet?

There is an issue around the capacity for pets to carry the virus on their fur or skin, as with any other surface. As the WHO confirms, “it is always a good idea to wash your hand with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella that can pass between pets and humans.”

A broader consideration may relate to the manner in which the virus may be transmitted; social distancing measures and washing your hands are part of UK government guidelines.

The Kennel Club provides practical advice in the context of exercising your dog: “Stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible — do not travel unnecessarily, and avoid others, staying at least two metres (around three steps) away. Wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you get back from your dog walk.”

Should cats be placed on lockdown?

On 8 April, an article featured on the BBC News website indicated that the British Veterinary Association had said that cats should be kept indoors to stop the spread of COVID-19.

A subsequent update to the article changed the headline to “Coronavirus: ‘Pets no risk to owners’ vets stress”. The article details that the BVA president Daniella Dos Santos told BBC News she agreed with that advice.

The Association has since clarified that its recommendation to concerned pet owners is to take the precaution of keeping cats indoors “only if someone in their own household showed symptoms”. Dos Santos further explained: “An animal’s fur could carry the virus for a time if a pet were to have come into contact with someone who was sick”.

Therefore, the concern is primarily one of general social distancing measures for and from any household with any individual exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

Can your pets get COVID-19?

Following a case in Belgium where a cat contracted the virus from its owner, there have been questions over the role cats play in spreading the illness. This won’t have come as a surprise to the virologists among us! An article in Science News explains that the virus focuses on a protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme II, or ACE2, to hack into cells. Cats and humans have versions of this protein that are nearly identical in spots where the virus binds. The virus that causes SARS targets cells using the same break-in method (SN: 2/3/20), and it has been shown to infect cats and ferrets in a lab setting, though cats did not develop signs of disease.

A bigger cat — a tiger named Nadia —  in the Bronx Zoo, along with six other big cats, is thought to have been infected by an asymptomatic zoo keeper. The cats started showing symptoms, including a dry cough, late last month and are expected to make a full recovery.

The ability of dogs to get the virus has also been discussed by our colleagues at Full Fact. On 28 February 2020, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department reported on a case of a pet dog testing “weak positive to Covid-19 virus”. The dog had no symptoms and was put into quarantine. The department initially proposed that the weak positive Covid-19 infection could be the result of “environmental contamination of the dog’s mouth and nose”.

On 27 July 2020, the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer confirmed that the virus responsible for COVID-19 had been detected in a pet cat in the UK. The press release further details that this is the first confirmed case of an animal infection with the coronavirus strain in the UK. It emphasises that there is no evidence to suggest that the animal was involved in transmission of the disease to its owners or that pets or other domestic animals are able to transmit the virus to people. It reiterates advice urging people to wash their hands regularly, including before and after contact with animals.

As with all issues relating to COVID-19, responses are constantly evolving and our understanding of the virus is developing on a day to day basis. Therefore, to keep ourselves — and our pets — safe, we must minimise potential exposure to the virus. This includes washing your hands after petting or handling pets and isolating pets if someone in your household shows symptoms of COVID-19.

We have more COVID-19 related articles that you can read at FactCheckNI.

Article originally published on 9 April 2020; updated on 27 July 2020.

Image: Protective antiviral mask by Fotolesnik used by license

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