Veterinarians weigh in on coronavirus’s effect on pets | Herald Community Newspapers
By Laura Lane and Jennifer Corr
This article was updated on April 29 at 3:50 p.m.
North Shore veterinarians are growing increasingly concerned that pet owners may start abandoning their pets out of fear they might have Covid-19 and transmit it to humans.
This comes after two domestic cats living in different parts of New York and eight big cats at the Bronx Zoo tested positive in April for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 in humans. Dogs had only been diagnosed with the disease in other parts of the world, but this week a pug tested positive in North Carolina. All of the animals experienced mild symptoms and are recovering well.
Dr. Jeremy Lancer, a veterinarian at the Oyster Bay Animal Hospital, said he worries cat owners might start letting their pets go. He emphasized that cats rarely contract Covid-19, and to date there is no evidence they can spread the disease to humans.
He has been following closely information from the Centers for Disease Control which states that “there is no evidence that pets play a role in spreading the virus in the United States. Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals that may compromise their welfare.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said they believe the virus might have been transmitted to the cats by their human owners, who are mildly ill from Covid-19, or in the case of one cat whose owner was virus-free, through contact with infected people outside the home. And the big cats at the zoo may have caught the virus from an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic zookeeper. The dog, which was described as “cuddly,” was living with three members of a family who were diagnosed as positive for Covid-19. Two are front-line health care workers.
Lancer said he could test cats for Covid-19, but first he would rule out other possibilities. The same goes for ferrets, which can also contract Covid-19. “The virus,” Lancer said, “presents similar signs to feline herpes and feline calicivirus,” a virus that causes a respiratory infection in cats.
“Cats don’t cough often,” he noted, “but even if a cat were coughing, it may have feline asthma.”
Before being tested for Covid-19, Lancer said, an animal would receive a chest X-ray and a nasal swab. “If all of the tests come back clear, we would speak to a public health official, and then, if they say it’s OK, we would send a sample to a lab,” he said, adding that sometimes cats can have an illness that is not visually apparent. “The interesting thing is a lot of cats have herpes virus and a lot are carriers too.”
Dr. Sheila Delijani, a veterinarian and the owner of Green Forest Veterinary Hospital of Glen Cove, said she was surprised to learn two cats had tested positive.
“We didn’t know that companion animals would be able to get it,” Delijani said. “We have just been treating the cats and dogs as potential fomites, meaning that they could have the virus on their surfaces.”
Lancer said he did not know why cats, but not dogs, have become infected in the U.S. He referred to the virus among cats as “a lock-and-key model,” an illness that affects certain species but not others. “Up to a month ago, we didn’t think Covid would affect pets,” he said.
He and his staff are taking precautions, washing their hands often and wearing masks and gloves. The hospital began practicing curbside medicine when non-essential businesses were shut down by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Only the pet is allowed inside the hospital.
Lancer sees far fewer patients, he said, since people are practicing social distancing and staying home. The pets that are brought in are very ill, he said.
“We are still doing some surgeries and spaying and neutering because that is considered to be essential,” he explained. “And I speak to a lot of patients on the phone and by email, but sometimes we do need to see the pet.”
As for strays, Lancer said people should take precautions when feeding them. And someone with Covid-19 should not feed cats.
It is important to protect animals from the virus, Delijani said. “Cats and dogs should socially distance from those outside their nuclear family, as humans do,” she said. “And if an owner tests positive, they should wear a mask when caring for their pet.”
Additionally, indoor and outdoor cats should be kept inside to prevent them from roaming the neighborhood and potentially catching the virus, she said.
Delijani said there is no reason to panic. “Listen to the science,” she said, “and do not draw conclusions from things you’re hearing from sources that might not be so credible.”
To inquire about Covid-19 testing for animals, contact APHISpress@usda.gov.