Coronavirus pets: Sharing accurate COVID-19 info with pet-owners

Adult cat and dog

Companion animals are considered by many to be family members, so it’s not really surprising that concerns about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus spreading throughout the world right now, are also including worries about pets.

The heat turned up on the topic late last week with the news that a dog in Hong Kong had tested “mild positive” for the virus, and again tested positive on the second test as reported on March 4. Currently, the dog is in quarantine, and is reportedly showing no signs of illness. (Here’s the latest update. )

At Nationwide’s pet health insurance unit, we talk to veterinary professionals every day, and many of the people on both sides of those conversation are veterinary professionals. We have more than 180 veterinarians and veterinary technicians/nurses working here.

You can bet even though we’re not in clinical practice, we’re fielding the same questions from pet-lovers among our friends and family that you are. Which is why we decided to put together some reliable references, and some quick takeaways so you’ll be ready for your clients’ questions or when your cousin calls to ask if she should be worried about her pet getting or transmitting the virus.

While the situation remains fluid, we’ve collected some information to help communicate risk and safety measures for all family members, and for the community at large:

Random internet searches are not advised. Searching for “pets” and “coronavirus” is going to turn up all kinds of crazy stuff, from conspiracy theories to bogus “immune boosters” and “cures.” It’s also going to be confusing to many, since not that many understand that COVID-19 is one of many coronaviruses, and that others cause other illnesses in people and pets. For example, how many pet-owners do you think know that a coronavirus is the cause of  Feline Infectious Peritonitis? All this random information can be alarming and confusing, which is why it’s best to stick to known, credible sources, such as the ones we use here.

What does it mean that a dog tested “mild positive” for COVID-19: Here’s the statement put out by public health authorities in Hong Kong. As of this writing, the dog is not thought to be sick, and the best guess is that the virus was found in the animal’s mouth and nose because the pet is around the house and the owner has COVID-19. No, pets don’t need masks, and are not high risk as vectors, nor are they, from what we know now, getting sick.

You [probably] won’t get COVID-19 from your pet: Again, with the caveat that based on what we know, and what epidemiologists and animal health experts (WSAVA, AVMA, CDC, World Organization for Animal Health) are saying, it’s important to keep things in perspective. From Dr. Scott Weese in the excellent Worms & Germs blog: Infected and infectious aren’t necessarily the same thing. It might be possible to have a very low grade infection but not shed enough virus to pose a risk to others.”

In other words, everyone wash your hands. Veterinary professionals know this, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind pet-lovers about it, too. Hand-washing around animals is always best practice, period, COVID-19 or not.

By the way, a lot of people do a really awful job washing their hands, so you might want to recommend taking a look here. In case they’re really curious, let them know why hand-washing with soap is so effective:

Any germs on your hands will be attached to the layer of acidic fats, oils and cellular debris on the surface of the skin. Soap dissolves this layer and so does a better job of dislodging the bugs than merely rubbing your hands under water alone.

Including your pets in any planning for distruptions in normal life is always advised. That’s the same whether it’s a hurricane, an earthquake, or the potential for infectious disease. It’s just good sense to have a grab-and-go kit that covers your entire family, pets included. So, yes, it’s never a bad idea to keep on hand some extra pet food, pet meds and other items such as cat litter. Here’s more information for pet-lovers on what to pack, from our general disaster-prep advice:

Final note: For those of us in the veterinary community, the news has a definite sense of deju vu about it. After all, just a few years ago a nurse in the United States was quarantined after testing for ebola, and her dog was quarantined (separately) as well, after immense concern and rampant speculation that the little spaniel would be killed, instead. (Which, depending on whom you believe, was either never on the table or was overruled by public outcry.)

Both Bentley the spaniel and Nina Pham, the owner, survived. In fact, the two spoke at the North American Veterinary Community conference (now known as VMX) not long after the incident.

Bottom line: Advise on reliable sources of information, hand-washing techniques, and be a source of solid, accurate information for your veterinary clients and others pet-lovers.

In other words, do what you do every day.

(Want to bust some myths on the human side? Try this link.)