A cat sleeping with their owner, which could lead to the transmission of COVID-19.

You May Have Given COVID-19 to Your Pets, Say New Studies

Though America has largely reopened and COVID-19 restrictions are loosening nationwide, concerned citizens still have plenty of questions about their transmission and infection risks. Pet owners in all 50 states are still wondering if they can transmit the virus to dogs and cats or come down with a case of their own after enjoying quality time together. New studies provide some answers, while potentially adding more fuel to the never-ending argument between cat people and dog people.

Pet Parents Can Transmit COVID-19 to Their Pets

Since the novel coronavirus first made headlines in early 2020, people everywhere have taken pains to educate themselves and limit their risk of infection. For months, this meant practicing social distancing and limiting contact with friends, neighbors, and family members. Scores of pet-loving Americans opted to break the monotony of life under quarantine by welcoming home new dogs and cats.

Whether they were hunkering down with long-time furry companions or introducing a new dog or cat to their family for the first time, pet owners were left with two big COVID-19 questions: can my pet give me COVID-19 and can I give it to them?

Throughout the pandemic, news of pets and zoo animals testing positive continually struck fear in the hearts of animal lovers everywhere. A new Dutch study suggests that we’ve underestimated our pet’s capacity to catch COVID-19. One of the study’s author, Els Broens of Utrecht University, reports that “About 1 out of 5 pets will catch the disease from their owners.”

Broens tested around 150 dogs and 150 cats from homes where human family members were known to have contracted COVID-19. 17% of the pets, 31 cats and 23 dogs, tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, confirming that they had previously been infected with the virus. Additionally, another 4.2% of animals were suffering from active cases of COVID-19. Displays of affection, such as sleeping alongside pets, may be responsible for these infections.

Cats Are Better Than Dogs . . . at Contracting COVID-19

Broens’ study is just one of several related to COVID-19 and pets that were recently presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. Another study, led by Dorothee Bienzle at Ontario’s University of Guelph, came to similar conclusions.

Bienzle studied 48 cats and 54 dogs from 77 households where owners had previously tested positive for COVID-19. In addition to testing the pets for viral antibodies, Bienzle surveyed owners extensively. Questions focused primarily on how owners interacted with their pets and whether pets showed symptoms during their owners’ bouts with COVID-19. Researchers also tested stray animals and animals residing in shelters. While just a small number of stray and shelter animals tested positive for antibodies, pets showed high rates of infection. 67% of cats and 43% of dogs had COVID-19 antibodies, with 27% of cats and 20% of dogs experiencing symptoms.

The amount of time a dog spent with their owner and the type of contact they engaged in did not appear to increase their chances of contracting the virus. Cats, however, were more likely to become infected the more time they spent with their owners. Cats who slept with their owners were found to be particularly susceptible. Bienzle and the rest of the study’s authors believe that both biological factors and cats’ tendencies to sleep by their owners’ faces may be responsible for their high rate of infection.

There is still no data to suggest that pets can transmit the virus to people, but Bienzle encourages pet parents to continue exercising caution. “Although pets have not been shown to pass the virus back to people,” she says, “the possibility can’t be completely ruled out.”