Editor's Note: For the latest updates on the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, see our news coverage.
March 3, 2020 -- The threat that the virus causing COVID-19 could sicken pets and spread between them and their owners is extremely low, veterinarians say.
Concerns about pet illness with COVID-19, and spread between owners and their animals emerged on Feb. 28, when Hong Kong health authorities announced that a dog belonging to a woman sick with COVID-19, also tested “weak positive” for the new coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease.
The dog showed no symptoms of the disease and is in quarantine, where Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department is continuing to monitor and test the animal. The agency said “environmental contamination” may have caused the initial positive response and the dog will be monitored and tested repeatedly in the coming days.
“It is really hard to interpret what weak positive means,” says Guy Palmer, DVM, and senior director of global health at Washington State University Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. “There is suspicion [among scientists] about whether it is a true positive.”
Until there is any information otherwise, Palmer says pet owners can feel confident that the virus isn’t spreading between pets, owners and other pets. There is a greater likelihood of certain bacteria on animals spreading between owners and their pets, so diligent hand washing is recommended, he said.
Understanding about the virus that causes COVID-19 is continuing to evolve, however, and information could change about the disease and its impact on pets and their owners in the coming weeks and months.
To help process the current situation, here are some questions and answers, based on information from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the CDC, the World Organisation for Animal Health, World Small Animal Veterinary Association and several veterinarians.
How worried should I be that the virus will infect my pet?
Not very worried. As of March 1, no animals in the United States have been identified with the virus and currently, there is no evidence that a dog or other pets can contract or spread the disease among themselves or humans, says the CDC.
“The risk to and from pets appears low at this time,” said Brennen McKenzie, VMD, a veterinarian with Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Gatos, Calif., and author of the book ‘Placebos for Pets: The Truth about Alternative Medicine in Animals.’
Animals spread viruses between one another that are genetically distinct from human viruses. The genetic distinction makes it extremely difficult for humans and their pets to pass diseases on to one another. (Except for the rabies virus, which is known to be transmitted from dogs to people. In the US, rabies is rare because dogs are required to be vaccinated against rabies.)
But what about the dog in Hong Kong? What does that test result mean for me and my family?
The Hong Kong dog is the only known instance worldwide where a pet has tested positive for the virus causing COVID-19, and scientists are skeptical about the accuracy of the test.
"We are still waiting to get more information about whether the dog in Hong Kong was actually infected with the virus, or whether it was just present on the dog, but not in an infectious way,” said Michael San Filippo, spokesman for the Illinois-based American Veterinary Medical Association, a non-profit representing 95,000 veterinarians.
He added that until Hong Kong authorities provide more information “we just don’t know if the dog could get sick, or make other animals or people sick, or if it could carry the virus and pass it on to others, or if this was a rare case.”
He recommends people keep checking this section of the organization’s website to stay informed.
While we wait for more information from Hong Kong, how can pet owners keep their animals and families safe?
Keep petting your animals. Wash your hands with soap and water after petting your animal or another's. Sometimes pets can carry bacteria, like E. Coli or salmonella, that make people ill, says the CDC.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Stay home when you are sick. If you need to cough or sneeze, do so into your arm, instead of your hand. Here are more COVID-19 prevention tips from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association and the CDC.
What about reports that an animal was the source of the virus?
Viruses are always evolving. Sometimes, though rarely, viruses that are circulating among animals evolve enough to cross over between species and then to humans. The majority of new pathogens dangerous to humans, emerge from animals. The new coronavirus, officially known as SARS CoV-2, likely germinated in an animal, probably a bat, but it is not clear yet how it evolved to infect a human, says the World Small Animal Veterinary Association. Companion animals and humans have distinct viruses that usually don’t infect one another.
The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted between people through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing and through personal contact with an infected person. There is some evidence that the virus may live on surfaces for several hours, but scientists aren’t certain if this is correct. There is no evidence that a dog or a cat, or another type of pet, can contract or spread COVID-19.
For more information about COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, see this WebMD story.
What if I live in an area where there are COVID-19 cases?
Continue to follow your usual routine of pet care. Until there is more information, pet owners may want to avoid contact with unfamiliar animals. Always wash your hands before and after touching your pet, or someone else’s pet. If your pet is ill, call your veterinarian, says the World Small Animal Veterinary Association.
What should I do if my animal came in contact with someone who is later diagnosed with COVID-19?
There isn’t evidence that COVID-19 can spread through pets, so don’t worry. If your pet gets sick after interaction with someone with COVID-19, first call your veterinarian.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association. also recommends that you also report it to a public health veterinarian so that public health officials can determine if there is spread between animals and their owners. In your state, find a public health veterinarian here: - or speak with a local public health official - to find one look here.
What if I or someone in my family develops COVID-19 or I am placed in quarantine because of close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19? What should I do about caring for my pet?
The CDC recommends limiting contact with pets or other animals if you develop COVID-19. They advise having someone else in the household care for your pet if you are sick. If you are in quarantine, but not sick, technically, your pet is in quarantine also, and you should find some way to care for the animal in the confines of your home, says veterinarian McKenzie.
However, that may not be possible, particularly if you own a dog. Try to find someone else who’d be willing to take your pet out for walks or keep your distance from people if you do go outside, says Palmer. Talk to you veterinarian too.
“Again, I think it’s highly unlikely that you could get COVID-19 from your dog, or give it to another dog,” he said. “If my neighbor were to become sick with COVID-19 and had a dog, I’d be willing to walk it for them. I am not worried I would get sick from their dog, or from their dog's leash.”