Can your pet give you the coronavirus? Find out what the vets have to say

Three UAE experts weigh in on whether cats and dogs can transmit the virus to people and vice versa

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We may live in the age of information, but there has been a lot of ambiguity about whether domestic animals can transmit Covid-19 to humans.

In April, news broke that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York had developed Covid-19. Not only was it believed to be the first known coronavirus infection of an animal in the US, it also raised new questions of the pathogen's transmission to animals.

Elsewhere, there have been a few cases of cats and dogs that are believed to have caught the disease from their owners.

This news has led to animal shelters in the UAE seeing a rise in abandoned and surrendered pets. On July 30, news emerged of a dog named Buddy who contracted the virus and later died. So far, it's been the only reported fatality, and the case is further complicated by the fact that the German Shepherd also likely had cancer.

The National spoke to three vets in the UAE to get their expert insight: Dr Sam Westhead of Amity Veterinary Clinic in Dubai; Dr Martin Wyness of the British Veterinary Centre in Abu Dhabi; and Dr Sara Elliott of the British Veterinary Hospital in Dubai.

Since Covid-19 is a novel coronavirus, information about the disease is in a constant state of flux. But, as of now, here are some things pet owners should keep in mind.

Should pet owners worry about animals giving them Covid-19?

Dr Westhead: "The British Veterinary Association and the OIE World Organisation for Animal Health have stated that current research strongly suggests that animals – and we are talking dogs and cats – cannot transmit the coronavirus to owners and vice versa. The WHO has also stated this.

I'm also going by IDEXX [a US laboratory for veterinary products and services]. On their website they have stated that research does not support transmission between animals [under normal conditions] and humans.

"The problem is that the popular press has picked up on specific cases of cats in Wuhan in China and a dog in Belgium and another in Hong Kong that were found to have the coronavirus. These are only a few cases out of the millions of people who have caught it – it is not statistically significant. Moreover, there is no research published so far to back it up."

There is no reason why we should surrender our pets during this crisis

Dr Elliott: "As far as Covid-19 goes, there is absolutely no evidence that humans can pass these diseases on to animals or vice versa. There is no reason why we should surrender our pets during this crisis. In fact, in times of self-isolation, you really need to take comfort from your pet, enjoy them, play with them and use them to cope in the same way you would your friends and family."

Dr Wyness: "Covid-19 is primarily a human-to-human disease. Pets should be kicking us out of the house rather than us kicking them out. Animals that have got the disease have got it from humans and it does not appear to be imported at all. So far, with all the evidence that we've got, it does not appear to be transmitted [from animals] to other humans.

"The virus spreads from people's secretions like mucus and saliva, so it's not the animals that are spreading the disease, it is humans coughing on each other or not washing their hands."

Can animals get the coronavirus?

Dr Westhead: "The coronavirus that dogs and cats get is not the same form as the virus that causes Covid-19, so there is no way it will move from them to humans. If you test 100 cats for the coronavirus antibody [the immune factor the body produces in response to a virus or bacteria], 98 per cent will have encountered the coronavirus – only 10 per cent will go on to develop a viral infection and of those only one or two per cent will get a full-blown disease. If a cat does contract it, it leads to a condition known as Feline Infectious Peritonitis.

"Those cats can be distinguished by a pot belly and loss of weight. It is uncommon. It's also rare in dogs. It causes a condition called gastroenteritis, characterised by severe diarrhoea and vomiting. There is also a form that can cause a cough – this is part of the kennel cough syndrome. They usually get over that and become immune. This is not transmissible to human beings, unlike the human coronavirus.

"It is unfortunate that the genetic series that originated in bats in China could mutate and adapt to human beings. The ones in cats and dogs is so different – there is no worry that it can mutate to humans."

British Veterinary Centre's Dr Martin Wyness and his cat, Ting Tong. Courtesy Martin Wyness

Dr Wyness: "Many mammals can get coronavirus, but they are not spreading or implicated in the spread to humans. So the science is: if you look for viruses you will find them. But the question is: are the viruses in these cases causing the disease in humans? The answer is no.

"Once the virus is out and in the open – in an animal market, where you mixed a whole load of exotic species that normally would never even be on the same continent, never mind meet each other, you jam them into small spaces and then you are surprised the disease develops? That is where the spread between animals and, in one instance, an animal to human, may have started the problem."

What would you say to those worried about picking up Covid-19 through a dog's or cat's coat?

Dr Westhead: "Lots of people are using antiviral wipes, sprays and sanitisers on their dog's feet after a walk, but this is not necessary. However, it is not unsafe if people feel happier doing it."

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, July 6, 2017:     Dr Sara Elliott owner and chief veterinarian at the British Veterinary Hospital in the Jumeirah 3 area of Dubai on July 6, 2017. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: Gillian Duncan
Section: Business
Keywords: pets, cats, dogs

Dr Elliott: "If you had contracted Covid-19 and were to cough or sneeze on your pet, in theory, their fur could hold the virus for a number of hours, but not any more than your sofa, bed, curtains or other items in the house. On that front, if you are self-isolating for the recommended period, then your pet should not be infectious in any way, once you are clear of the disease."

What can pet owners do to protect their animals?

Dr Wyness: "Pet owners need to wash their hands frequently. They need to maintain a two-metre distance between themselves and other humans. If they get the coronavirus, they need to stay away from other humans and probably their pets, too, because they could give it to them.

"Now, most pets are not going to get sick from it, but one or two might get a slight cough. This is what we have seen. It seems to only be happening in cases where people already have the disease in the house. But just in case you might hurt your pet ... give the pet distance so that you are not going to give them the disease, exactly like you would for a family member. "

Give the pet distance so that you're not going to give them the disease, like you would a family member

Dr Elliott: "What is important at the moment is that while so many people are focusing on Covid-19, the rest of the world needs to continue. For instance, pets have different diseases and problems, so things like keeping your pet safe by vaccinating them is really important at this time. Also, because you are spending more time at home, you should be checking your pets thoroughly. Now is the time to see whether they have a dental disease, are they limping, are they stiff when they get up? What can we do to actually help our pets?"

What are some essential things to keep in mind?

Dr Elliott: "All vets are taking this incredibly seriously. We are medical establishments and we are not allowing any human clients into our building, only the pets are allowed to come in. So, if you are worried about the safety of your pets going to the vet, use the provision of pet taxis and have the consultation by phone once your animal has been physically examined.

"You need to make sure you are keeping things safe and that is what vets are working really hard for, because it is regarding their own health, as well as the pets'. "

Dr Westhead: "There are far more risky things you can be doing right now than handling your cat – metal surfaces, for example, are the worst things to be touching. Wash surfaces down with a good disinfectant."

Dr Wyness: "I'll say it again: you don't have to get rid of your pets. There is no evidence that pets are important or significant in the spread of the disease. That is the number one message we need to emphasise and repeat until it is common knowledge."