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Since COVID-19 began to spread across the globe last year, many pet owners have raised questions about how to best keep their pets safe. Pets don’t need to wear masks on walks, but experts have generally encouraged sick dog and cat owners to practice social distancing if possible. More recently, some researchers have even suggested that vaccinating dogs and cats could soon prove necessary for stopping COVID-19’s spread and evolution. In an editorial for Virulence, a team of scientists writes that infected animal populations may become “reservoirs” for the virus and present serious risks for people in the coming months. In addition to pets, a number of zoo and livestock animals have contracted the virus.
Animals and COVID-19
Though it has become popular shorthand for COVID-19, the term “coronavirus” actually refers to an entire family of illnesses that can affect both animals and people. In people, these range from mild respiratory conditions like the common cold to potentially lethal ones like SARS and COVID-19. In the animal kingdom, conditions like canine coronavirus (CCV) and feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) are more commonly associated with intestinal symptoms. CCV is rarely cause for concern in healthy adult dogs, but puppies typically require treatment. FECV is practically ubiquitous in cats, detectable in around 90% of multi-cat households.
So far, just a small number of pets have been diagnosed with COVID-19. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports that fewer than 20 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) during the pandemic’s first five months. Months later, there is still little reason to believe that pet owners present a serious COVID-19 infection risk for their pets, or vice versa.
Positive diagnoses and serious side effects have been much more common on mink farms, particularly in Denmark and the Netherlands. In Denmark, it is believed that the virus spread from workers to minks before mutating and spreading back to workers. All mink farming has stopped in the country until 2022 at the earliest. There is no evidence to suggest the virus is spreading from minks to people in the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are continuing to investigate the issue.
The Future of COVID-19 Testing and Vaccinations
Cock van Oosterhout and the other authors of Virulence’s editorial are not calling for officials to begin vaccinating cats and dogs immediately. They are merely suggesting that doing so could conceivably become necessary to “curb the spread of infection.” In their conclusion, they also reiterate the importance of strict public health policies and vigilance from all sectors.
According to The New York Times, Russian researchers and at least two U.S. companies are working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine for minks and domestic animals. It’s also possible that we already have the means to vaccinate animals against the virus. The COVID-19 vaccines that are currently being distributed to people were previously tested on subjects ranging from mice to monkeys. Speaking to Science, EcoHealth Alliance’s William Karesh says, “Different species have different immune responses… but the fundamentals of the vaccine approach wouldn’t change.” He also notes, however, that there is currently “no need for a vaccine from a public health standpoint.”
Earlier this month, officials in Seoul announced that they would begin testing the pets of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. Dogs and cats who test positive will be required to quarantine at home with their owners for 14 days. This news comes just a few weeks after South Korea’s first positive diagnosis in a cat.
Staying Safe and Healthy
Though it’s still unclear whether people can spread COVID-19 to their dogs, cats, and other pets, infected individuals (or those who suspect they’re infected) are advised to avoid close contact with animals. What’s more, everyone is encouraged to continue following health and safety guidelines. The ongoing vaccine rollout could mean an end to the pandemic, but only if individuals from the health infrastructure to the general public continue to act responsibly.