The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak has been at the front of many health professionals’ minds, especially with the World Health Organization’s recent declaration of the virus as a public health emergency of international concern.
Although the threat of the mutated 2019-nCoV strain should be taken seriously, veterinarians at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) discuss how this dangerous variant of coronavirus is different from strains that may infect your pet dog or cat.
Coronaviruses are fairly common and often mild infections in cats and dogs, contributing to illnesses such as Infectious Tracheobronchitis Complex (ITB), also known as kennel cough.
While there are also forms of coronavirus that can be more serious, and even life-threatening, for pets, Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the CVM, emphasizes that “the coronaviruses that infect animals do not infect humans unless the virus mutates—which is what 2019-nCoV did in the Wuhan, China region.”
However, Dr. Kate Creevy, an associate professor at the CVM, assures pet owners that “at this time, we do not believe humans can catch (any form of) coronavirus from their pet.”
In addition, veterinarians do not currently believe that pets are susceptible to the 2019-nCoV mutated virus.
“There is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to animals, or that animals are involved in current transmission of the disease to humans,” said Dr. Wesley Bissett, director for the CVM’s Veterinary Emergency Team. “The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention does recommend avoiding animals if traveling to China and to not handle pets or animals while sick.”
Since the more commonly encountered coronaviruses are species-specific, cats ill with a coronavirus are able to transmit that virus to other cats, but not to dogs. Similarly, dogs are able to pass canine coronavirus to other dogs, but not to cats.
For this reason, Zoran says it is best practice for owners introducing a new pet into their household to separate the new animal from their other pets until the new animal can be examined by a veterinarian, or until the owner is sure their new pet doesn’t have signs of ill health (which may be a week or more).
Cats infected with coronavirus may exhibit mild diarrhea, fevers, jaundice, fluid acclimation in the chest or abdomen, and weight loss, depending on which strain of the virus is present.
Dogs infected with a coronavirus may have either an intestinal or respiratory variant, Creevy says. Canine intestinal coronaviruses typically cause mild diarrhea and may resolve without veterinary intervention.
“Dogs infected with respiratory coronavirus alone, or with other ITB complex pathogens, typically show mild nasal discharge and coughing,” Creevy said. “In most cases, they will recover on their own with supportive care including rest, steam therapy to soothe their cough, and soft food that’s easier to swallow with a sore throat.”
As with all viral infections, there are antiviral drugs that can help slow the virus effects in the body, but clearing the infection requires the infected individual’s immune system to do the work.
Dog owners can protect their pet from disease by practicing good hygiene for their pets and themselves, including avoiding contact with areas that have feces from other dogs, and washing their hands after contact with dog feces. Pet dogs should be well-nourished, receiving the correct anti-parasite medications, and vaccinated against preventable infections.
“For cats, since there are no effective vaccines for either coronavirus, the best prevention is good health and hygiene practices, and especially litterbox cleanliness, as the virus is present in feces,” Zoran said. “Owners should clean their cat’s litterboxes daily and make sure they have enough litterboxes, at least one per cat to avoid over-crowding.”
When possible, owners should keep their pets away from other animals that are sick and should seek veterinary care if their illness does not resolve, worsens, or if they have concerns about their pet’s well-being.
Humans coming into contact with pets should take care to wash their hands, and avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency also recommends avoiding contact with other people who are sick and staying home if you feel unwell. For more information, visit the CDC website.
By keeping with their usual practice of good hygiene and staying up to date on official information surrounding outbreaks such as this one, pet owners have little to worry about in the case of the novel 2019-nCoV coronavirus strain behind the Wuhan outbreak.
“Dealing with emerging viruses is always difficult, because when a new virus emerges, we cannot predict its behavior,” Creevy said. “For instance, more Americans are currently infected with the flu and more Americans are at risk of death from flu than from 2019-nCoV. But 2019-nCoV is capturing all the news attention because it is more unpredictable. It’s appropriate to pay attention to 2019-nCoV while we try to figure out what it does, but it’s also essential to keep preventing flu, which is far more likely to affect most Americans.
“Similarly, for pets, there is a possibility that 2019-nCoV has mutated in a way that it could affect pets, but that is unlikely,” she said. “It’s OK to be aware of that and pay attention to emerging news, but it’s even more important for owners to understand the things that we already know coronavirus can and does do.”
“The first, and most important, thing to remember is that most coronaviruses are very specific to the species they infect—meaning the cat coronaviruses don’t infect dogs or humans and vice versa,” Zoran said. “As with all viruses, a clean environment, healthy diet, and good husbandry is the best way to ensure that viruses don’t cause problems for you or your pet.”
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.