Worried about your pet getting COVID-19? Here’s what you need to know
Scientists have learned a lot more about how the virus affects our pets. We have the answers to all your questions.
Over the past year, coronavirus vaccines have gone into billions of human arms – and into the fuzzy haunches of an ark’s worth of zoo animals. Jaguars are getting the jab. Bonobos are being dosed. So are orangutans and otters, ferrets and fruit bats, and, of course, lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!).
Largely left behind, however, are two creatures much closer to home: domestic cats and dogs.
Pet owners have noticed.
“I get so many questions about this issue,” Dr. Elizabeth Lennon, a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania, said. “Will there be a vaccine? When will there be a vaccine?”
Technically, a pet vaccine is feasible. In fact, several research teams say they have already developed promising cat or dog vaccines; the shots that zoo animals are receiving were initially designed for dogs.
But vaccinating pets is simply not a priority, experts said. Although dogs and cats can catch the virus, a growing body of evidence suggests that Fluffy and Fido play little to no role in its spread – and rarely fall ill themselves.
“A vaccine is quite unlikely, I think, for dogs and cats,” Dr. Will Sander, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said. “The risk of disease spread and illness in pets is so low that any vaccine would not be worth giving.”
In February 2020, a woman in Hong Kong was diagnosed with COVID-19. Two other people in her home soon tested positive for the virus, as did one unexpected member of the household: an elderly Pomeranian. The 17-year-old dog was the first pet known to catch the virus.
But not the last. A German shepherd in Hong Kong soon tested positive, too, as did cats in Hong Kong, Belgium and New York. The cases were exceedingly mild – the animals had few or no symptoms – and experts concluded that humans had spread the virus to the pets, rather than vice versa.
“To date, there hasn’t been any documented cases of dogs or cats spreading the virus to people,” Lennon said.
But the prospect of a pet pandemic sparked interested in an animal vaccine. Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey, began working on one as soon as it heard about the Hong Kong Pomeranian.
“We figured, ‘Wow, this could become serious, so let’s start working on a product,’” Mahesh Kumar, a senior vice president at Zoetis who leads vaccine development, said.
By the fall of 2020, Zoetis had four promising candidates for a vaccine, each of which elicited “robust” antibody responses in cats and dogs, the company announced. (The studies, which were small, have not been published.)
But as vaccine development progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the infection of pets was unlikely to pose a serious threat to animals or people.
With scientists learning a lot more about how the virus affects our pets. Here’s what you need to know.
CAN I GIVE THE VIRUS TO MY PETS?
Yes. Humans can transmit the virus to their pets the same way they transmit it to other people: through tiny, respiratory droplets. Most dogs and cats that catch the virus appear to get it from infected humans in their household.
Studies have consistently shown that cats are more likely to become infected than dogs, for reasons that scientists do not completely understand. (Biology and behaviour may both play a role.) In one study of 76 pets living with people who had the virus, 17.6 percent of cats and 1.7 percent of dogs also tested positive. Of the infected pets, 82.4% had no symptoms.
CAN MY PETS GIVE THE VIRUS TO ME?
There have been no documented cases of cats or dogs transmitting the virus to humans. And there are few signs that these animals readily pass the virus to each other. Studies show, for instance, that stray cats are much less likely to have antibodies to the virus than cats that live with humans. That suggests that the animals are largely getting the virus from us, rather than passing it around among themselves.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS IN PETS?
Most have no symptoms at all. Those that do get sick typically have mild symptoms, which may include coughing, sneezing or diarrhoea. The animals typically make full recoveries without treatment, although more severe cases do occur occasionally.
SHOULD I VACCINATE MY PET?
Though scientists have developed promising vaccine candidates for cats and dogs, there are no pet vaccines approved in the United States. And regulators are not currently accepting applications for cat or dog vaccines.
Scientists say that a pet vaccine is unnecessary because cats and dogs do not get very sick from the virus and do not readily transmit it to humans or other animals.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MY PET?
If you test positive for the virus, isolate yourself from your pets. If you can’t do that, make sure to wear a face mask while caring for them. And get vaccinated yourself. If you don’t become infected with the virus, your pets are exceedingly unlikely to catch it.
By Emily Anthes © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.