Can dogs or cats contract or spread Coronavirus?

Pete Wedderburn
22nd September 2020 - 4 min read

Humans and animals are so closely connected with each other that the term “One Health” has been coined to emphasize this fact. In the past, “human health” and “animal health” were referred to as separate topics; we now realise that the term “One Health” is much more appropriate.  And in 2020, Covid-19 is a good example of this.

Theory for the Origin of Coronavirus

As everyone knows, the virus was first seen in a “wet market” in Wuhan, a city in northern China. Genetic studies show that the virus is very similar to a virus seen commonly in bats, and also to one seen on Pangolins (ant-eater type mammals). The wet market is so-named because it’s a place where live and dead animals change hands. And live animals are often slaughtered in the market. 

The most common theory for the origin of the novel Coronavirus is that a live bat (or pangolin) was sold, then was slaughtered. This animal was carrying a Coronavirus infection, and somehow the virus had already randomly mutated in such a way that it was able to infect a human being. It’s likely that one person was splashed with blood from the animal; this animal blood would have been teeming with live virus particles, and hence the first person was infected. And this mutated virus was able to cause Covid-19 in this first person. When they developed the signs of illness, they would have coughed up thousands of viral particles which would have then been passed on to another human. And they reckon that every person who is infected passes it on to at least two people. Two go to four, four to eight, eight to sixteen, and so on and so on. And that’s how the global pandemic started.

Can Animals spread Coronavuris?

Now to the next question linked to the One Health concept: are animals still involved in the continuing spread of Covid-19? Pet animals live as part of our families. Could they pick up the disease themselves? And could they help to spread it?

The good news is that the answer to both of these questions is “only exceptionally rarely”. 

Dogs VS Cats

Dogs seem to have natural resistance to Covid-19, and while cats are able, in theory, to become infected, it’s very rare indeed for this to happen. There have a tiny number of cats living with Covid-19-positive people who have tested positive after picking up the Coronavirus infection from their owners. However the infection has never been thought to have passed from cats to humans. These Covid-positive cats have generally shown only minor signs of respiratory or gastrointestinal illness and have made full recoveries. This needs to be seen in context: over twenty million humans have been infected globally, while less than a hundred cats may have been confirmed as positive. These cats are interesting, incidental cases rather than a significant contributor to he spread of the pandemic.

cat with head sideways

Can animals spread Covid-19 from one human to another?

The main theoretical issue (and it is only theoretical) with pets is that it is possible that they could, in some instances, act as “fomites”; in other words, pets can be like other objects in the environment that can act as temporary homes for infectious agents. If someone coughs and a droplet lands on a surface like the back of a chair, the virus particles in that droplet can remain on the chair for 2 – 3 days. So if someone then touches the chair, and puts their hand to their mouth, eyes or nose, they may become infected with the virus. In this situation, the chair is technically classified as “fomites”.

So the same situation applies to pets: if someone has Covid-19, and they cough beside their pet, droplets full of virus could land on the animal. Then if someone else comes along and pets the animal, they could get virus particles on their hand. If they then put their hand to their mouth, eyes or nose, they could pick up the infection.

I need to stress that this is only “in theory”: there have been no proven instances of this actually happening.

Vets have said for many years that if you are ill yourself, you should have a little distance between yourself and your pet.

  • Try not to cough on your pet
  • Don’t cuddle up to them too much
  • Wash your hands before and after handling your pet

There is a long list of illnesses where animals could, in theory, act as fomites. And just as you would not share a handkerchief with someone else if you were unwell, you should not really “share” contact with pets.

The value of Animals during Covid-19

Animals are important as emotional support therapy for us humans, and we should continue to enjoy having them as part of our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is no need for people to worry unduly about their pets making a complex problem even more complicated. It has been proven over and over again that direct human to human spread is the major cause of the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Spend more time with your pets, and less time with human acquaintances: that’s the message from Petfix Club.

girl and dog on the grass
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