Can animals catch COVID-19? Probably not. But then along came a tiger . . .


Up until last weekend, there were only four reported cases of dogs and cats testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus anywhere in the world: two dogs and a cat in Hong Kong, and another cat in Belgium.

Only four, but still—that news understandably worried a lot of pet owners, who clamored to find out if their pets could catch COVID-19 or pass it on to humans. At that point in time, scientists and healthcare professionals put the word out: There’s no hard evidence that domestic animals, including pets and livestock, can catch COVID-19, much less spread it to people. And pet owners began to calm down.

Then along came a tiger . . .

On April 5, the Bronx Zoo announced that a Malayan tiger tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, after showing symptoms of a cough and decreased appetite.

And pet owner fear ramped up again.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) acknowledged the tiger on their website that same day and doubled down on their position, stating: “It appears that dogs and cats are not readily infected with SARS-CoV-2, we have little to no evidence that they become ill, and no evidence that those that may be naturally infected spread SARS-CoV-2 to other pets or people.”

That lines up with the current thinking of other health agencies, including the US Centers for Disease Control.

Nevertheless, many pet owners remain concerned, so NEWStat reached out to J. Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM, an associate professor in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and a contributing reviewer of AAHA’s Infection Control, Prevention, and Biosecurity Guidelines.

Weese has simple advice to worried pet owners who ask him about the risk to their pets: “Relax,” he tells them. “Honestly, that’s the main message. “

After all, Weese says, this is predominantly a human disease: “Almost all transmission is human to human. If I get, it will probably be at the grocery store. It’s pretty much impossible that it will come from my dog and cat, because I’m keeping them away from other animals and people. If I do that, they can’t pose a risk to my household.”

In short, Weese advises that that people and their pets practice social distancing. “If my dog or cat get COVID-19, they will get it from me or my family,” Weese explained. “So, if I socially distance my pets from other people and animals, there’s basically no chance that they will be a source of infection for the household.”

And getting back to tigers, Weese acknowledges that cats of any species are at a greater risk of coronavirus infection than dogs

“Presumably it deals with the virus receptor ACE2,” Weese said. “The version [of ACE2] that cats have is a good match for this virus, as is [the version humans have], and some other species such as ferrets. That makes [all three species] easier for the virus to infect.” Several new studies address this topic, and Weese examines them in detail on his blog Worms and Germs.

NEWStat asked Weese if those new studies challenge the conventional wisdom that there’s no hard evidence companion animals can catch (or spread) COVID-19.

“I’ve been saying all along that cats can likely catch the virus so it’s consistent with my message,” Weese says, and “whether they can spread it is still unknown.”

Photo credit: © iStock/Liukov