Animals and coronaviruses: everything we know so far about whether pets can be infected (and spread to humans)

On March 27, 2020, a tigress from the Bronx Zoo in New York began to cough. A dry and persistent cough.The park had been closed since the 16th and, in principle, no one paid much attention to it until it began to lose its appetite. However, when her caregiver tested positive for coronavirus, all alarms went off.

And indeed, Nadia, which is the name of the 4-year-old Malaysian tigress, has become the only animal that has tested positive for coronavirus in the United States at the moment. However, it is yet another case that raises questions about the role of animals in the transmission of the virus.

After all, it is likely that, over the course of these months, we have heard news of infections in a dog in Hong Kong or a Belgian cat. However, the World Organization for Animal Health has always maintained that they were isolated cases and that, with the information we have, there was nothing to worry about. As new research begins to emerge, it is a good time to see if this continues.

So can pets get it?

Vlad Tchompalov

Now, an analysis (not yet published) from the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute indicates that cats could become infected with the coronavirus and spread other cats. It also occurs with ferrets. However, the work considers it unlikely that dogs, chickens, pigs or ducks will contract the virus and be able to spread it.

The team, led by virologist Bu Zhigao, inoculated the SARS-CoV-2 virus with dozens of animals that usually live with humans and studied how the subjects' viral load evolved. Their data indicates that while the virus replicates little in dogs, chickens, pigs and ducks, in the case of ferrets and cats it does so efficiently. Of course, only in cats has evidence of the virus been found in their respiratory flows.

The data is provisional, but the truth is that this underpins the main ideas to understand the dynamics of the virus in the animal world. "With SARS and MERS we have had similar situations," said Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, speaking of sporadic infections from pets. "The central question is whether animals are associated with transmission of the disease."

Are they vectors of the disease?

Roberto Nickson

"The answer is no," said Michael Ryan himself. And, in fact, the World Organization for Animal Health has spent months collecting all reports of infected animals and, so far, everything seems to indicate that no pet is capable of secreting enough of the virus to infect a being human by respiratory route. Not even cats.

In fact, even in the event that they could transmit SARS-CoV-2 on paper, epidemiological records seem to make it clear that this is not happening and that it would be a very, very small contagion vector. In other words, it would be a long way from the main routes of contagion, which are, fundamentally, from person to person.

What happens if we consume meat from an animal with the virus? As we have seen, there are no indications that farm animals develop the disease (nor do they have high levels of the virus) and, in any case, food safety measures would naturally limit the arrival of this meat on the market. However, as we have commented on other occasions, the truth is that heat denatures the virus and makes it lose its infective capacity; therefore, the problem would be in the handling of the meat, which, as always, should be done in a hygienic way.

That does not mean that proper security measures should not be maintained. On the contrary, health authorities such as the North American CDC not only recommend strict habits (washing hands, keeping pets clean and consulting with the vet), but they also recommend protecting pets while sick to reduce the risk of contagion. At the end of the day, since we have no evidence (especially at a time like this in which all research resources are focused on humans), it is better not to rule out any option, unlikely as it may seem.

Image | Jae Park

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