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Coronavirus update: Pets are safe . . . but wash your hands

That seems to be the general consensus when it comes to companion animals and COVID-19.

Reports that a dog in Hong Kong repeatedly tested “weak positive” for the COVID-19 virus fueled worldwide concern that pets could indeed get the new superbug. While that concern appears to be groundless (at least so far), it does raise a question.

Why did the dog test positive, however weakly? One theory is that while the virus may have been present on the dog, the dog did not actually have the virus. Scientists know that coronaviruses can live on surfaces and objects, although not for how long.

So wash your hands.

That advice comes courtesy of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is doing its best to allay the fears of pet owners by stating on its website that, “At present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus.”

But because no one’s quite sure what’s going on, the WHO goes on to advise that people play it safe: “However,” the website hedges, “it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella that can pass between pets and humans.”

That’s in line with the latest from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “There is no reason to think that any animals, including pets, in the United States might be a source of infection with this new coronavirus. To date, CDC has not received any reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19. At this time, there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19.”

Nevertheless, wash your hands.

Because, like the WHO, the CDC website includes the same caveat:

“However, since animals can spread other diseases to people, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands after being around animals.”

In search of consensus on COVID-19 and companion animals, NEWStat reached out to Gail Golab, PhD, DVM, MANZCVS, DACAW, chief veterinary officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Regarding the dog in Hong Kong, Golab said, “Given that the report states the pet dog has exhibited no signs of illness, it’s possible the dog could have a low level of infection, but that replication of the virus in the dog has not been sufficient to cause the dog to become ill.”

“With that in mind, the AVMA continues to recommend that everyone, including pet owners, practice good hygiene as their best means of preventing illness and/or transmission of disease to others,” Golab added.

That includes:

  • Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the restroom, before eating, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, and before and after caring for animals, including pets.
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or using a tissue to cover your nose and mouth, then throwing the tissue into the trash can.
  • Staying at home if you’re ill with symptoms of respiratory disease, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, or fatigue.
  • Restricting contact with pets and other animals if you’re ill, just like you would restrict your contact with other people. When possible, a member of the household other than the individual who is ill should care for any animals in the household. Those infected with COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. Those who must care for a pet or who will be around animals while sick should wear an appropriate facemask and wash hands thoroughly before and after interacting with those animals.

Golab reiterated that the CDC, WHO, and the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department maintain that there’s no evidence that companion animals can spread COVID-19. What’s more, “The AVMA is actively communicating with infectious disease experts and key governmental and intergovernmental agencies, and will share additional information on our website as it becomes available.”

In the meantime, seriously, wash your hands.

Because, why not?

And keep washing them for the foreseeable future: world health leaders say it could take up to 18 months to come up with a COVID-19 vaccine.

Photo credit: © iStock/kali9