The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has infected more than 92,700 and killed at least 3,200 people worldwide. However, many are now concerned that humans might not be the only victims of the epidemic. A recent case in Hong Kong has stoked fears that our furry friends may also be vulnerable to the contagion.
On Friday, February 28, Hong Kong authorities announced that a dog was placed under quarantine after testing “weakly positive” for COVID-19 in nasal and oral samples.
The dog, who belongs to a confirmed coronavirus patient, has been placed under quarantine for 14 days but has not exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus. The pet will be returned if further tests for the coronavirus come back negative.
The dog is currently the only animal housed at the animal quarantine facility at Hong Kong’s Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge port, said a press release by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD).
News of the possible infection has already caused many pet owners to worry. The AFCD also strongly encouraged people who have been infected with the coronavirus to put their pets under quarantine.
But can pets actually contract the coronavirus?
VICE spoke with Dr. Kenneth Tong, a vet at Animal & Avian Veterinary Clinic in Singapore, about the possibilities of COVID-19 spreading through interspecies transmission.
VICE: Is this the first time a pet has tested positive for COVID-19?
Tong: Yes, this is the first example of a pet testing positive for COVID-19. Animal species have their own strain of influenza as well, but none are known to cross to humans. COVID-19 is a strain of coronavirus and should not be mistaken as an influenza strain.
If pets test positive for COVID-19, does that mean they’re infected?
Even if pets have tested positive, it doesn’t mean that they are infected with COVID-19. Pets may test positive for the coronavirus if there are traces of COVID-19 found on the surface of the pet. They could have been in the vicinity of an infected person.
Can pets contract COVID-19?
They can theoretically catch the virus if the virus is structured to attach to the specific animal protein. Fortunately, most viruses are species-specific, and do not readily cross over. COVID-19 has not been shown to cross over to any domestic companion animal species, and is unlikely to as well. Multiple complex mutation is required of the virus before it can bind to a specific animal protein in a “chance” occurrence.
Are all pets equally at risk of contracting COVID-19?
If COVID-19 crosses over to a dog, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will cross over to a cat, since both species are different. This makes it even less possible that COVID-19 will infect our companion animals in the near future. COVID-19 will likely evolve into a virus with lower infectivity or morbility (severity) in the coming months as the population builds up an immunity. In the veterinary context, this is known as “herd immunity.”
How might pets react to the coronavirus, if they do contract it? Are there certain animals that are more vulnerable?
The symptoms may vary between species. General signs of viral infection include, but are not limited to, febrile symptoms, lethargy, increased ocular and/or nasal discharge, and gastrointestinal signs like vomiting, diarrhoea and inappetance. The severity of the symptoms depend on the type of virus contracted, individual immunity, and individual viral-load.
No one species of animal is more or less vulnerable, but since coronavirus is more likely to spread via the oral route, animals that tend to lick, eat, drink, or have contact on possibly contaminated surfaces will be more vulnerable than species that have minimal contact with contaminated surfaces.
Can pets spread the coronavirus to humans?
Theoretically, anything is possible. But the latest research shows that it is only a remote possibility. With such a low possibility, I would not be concerned at all. Likewise, the risk of humans spreading COVID-19 to pets is extremely low and there shouldn’t be any concern about that at all.
Just out of caution, what steps should we take to keep our pets safe from the coronavirus?
Owners should maintain good personal hygiene.
Since it’s the owner who prepares food and water for the pet, they have to ensure that their hands are thoroughly washed before preparing the food, and ensure that the food and water bowls are washed regularly with detergent. Placing these bowls under direct sunlight (with heat and UV light) helps to kill the virus, to an extent.
Do not feed undercooked or raw meat to your pets, especially meat that hasn’t been frozen, treated with heat, or processed.
If either you or your pet is sick, avoid having contact with bodily fluids, such as kissing or licking.
It is also important to ensure that your pets are vaccinated, and bring them to a veterinarian when they’re sick. Veterinary advice may differ according to the COVID-19 situation in different countries and the species of the pet involved.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, a representative from the World Health Organization, said that they are still trying to determine whether the dog in Hong Kong was actually infected or if it just picked up the virus from a contaminated surface.
As of now, there is not enough evidence to conclude that dogs can transmit or contract the coronavirus, so let’s not switch into panic mode just yet. Doing so could prove to be more dangerous. In Taiwan, there are now concerns that people will start abandoning their pets in fear of catching the virus.
In the meantime, the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised pet owners who are infected with the coronavirus to minimise contact with their furry companions, such as “petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food,” CNBC reported.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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