Your Most Common Questions Answered About COVID-19

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to care for your pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pet parents have lots of questions as we all navigate the “new normal” of living with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Some of these questions concern veterinary visits (routine, urgent or emergency?), coronavirus vaccinations for pets (not recommended), and the latest “infected” pet news out of Belgium
  • The American Veterinary Medical Association has also updated their guidance for pet parents as of March 31st

The novel coronavirus pandemic we're in the midst of continues to be challenging to navigate — including for pet parents. I know you have lots of questions, and I also know it's difficult to find useful answers while sifting through unending panic-inducing news headlines and other so-called "helpful resources."

That's why I decided to take a few minutes today to address some of the more common concerns pet parents and caregivers have shared with me, as we all try to do our best to keep our two- and four-legged family members healthy and safe.

How Should I Handle Veterinary Appointments for My Pet?

Even though veterinary care is currently categorized as "essential" by the federal government, many or most practices aren't seeing patients for routine visits such as wellness exams during this time. Some are open for emergencies only, while others are completely shuttered.

For the interim, veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson has compiled a helpful list of situations in which you should contact an emergency veterinarian immediately if your pet:1

Ingested a toxin (human medications, chocolate, xylitol, antifreeze, rat poison, raisins, etc.)

Call poison control immediately at 888-426-4435

Is having trouble urinating

Has an open wound

Has prolonged or explosive vomiting or diarrhea (especially if it's bloody), or a distended abdomen

Has a history of trauma

Shows neurologic signs such as seizures, tremors, stumbling, circling, disorientation

Is showing signs of pain

Has an abnormal appearance or behavior, such as pale gums, bruising, bulging eyes, squinting eyes, holding head to one side

Is having trouble breathing

Has facial swelling or hives

Has sudden lameness or weakness

Has not eaten in more than one day or is jaundiced (yellowish), especially if pet is a cat

Nonemergency, but urgent situations for which you should try to see a veterinarian sooner rather than later involve pets who:

Have vomited once or twice in 24 hours

Have had diarrhea for less than 24 hours and are otherwise acting normally

Are coughing without signs of labored breathing

Are sneezing and have watery eyes

Have not eaten for less than 24 hours

Are itching or shaking ears

If you have or might have COVID-19, someone else should bring your pet to the emergency animal hospital or veterinary office for you. If you are unable to have someone else bring your pet, let your veterinarian know before your scheduled appointment. If your vet recommends that you bring your pet in, wear a mask and gloves, keep your distance from employees and other pet parents, and comply with any other requests the veterinary staff asks of you.

Should I Have My Pet Vaccinated Against Coronavirus?

Both dogs and cats can get their "own" canine or feline strains of coronavirus, but it's crucial to understand these illnesses have nothing to do with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 or the disease it causes, COVID-19, that is currently infecting human populations around the globe.

At this time, there's no reason to worry that your dog or cat can become sick with COVID-19, or that your pets can transmit the disease to you, or vice versa. Most importantly, there isn't a COVID-19 vaccine available for pets or people.

Asking your veterinarian to vaccinate your pet against canine and feline strains of coronavirus is futile if your goal is to protect him or her from SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. Number one, again, there's no definitive evidence that pets can contract the virus, and number two, those vaccines are ineffective against it. I don't even recommend those vaccines under normal circumstances, because experts agree they have little value.

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What About the Cat in Belgium?

Like all things COVID-19-related, this appears to be a situation with many unanswered questions.

According to a March 30th post by my fellow veterinarian Dr. Jean Dodds of Hemopet, in mid-March the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) in Belgium was informed by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Liege that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was detected in the feces and vomit of a cat. The story didn't hit the news wires until late March.2 A few datapoints:

  • The cat's owner had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and developed COVID-19 symptoms
  • The cat had short-lived digestive and respiratory symptoms (which are common in cats, in general)
  • It's unclear whether the cat was sick as a result of exposure to the owner's SARS-CoV-2 infection, or merely passed it, or had a different health issue
  • The cat recovered

There is currently no evidence that companion pets or other domestic animals can spread the virus to humans or other animals. From the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) COVID-19 website:

"Information is not available regarding what other conditions potentially leading to respiratory or gastrointestinal signs were considered or evaluated for this cat.

The cat reportedly became ill one week after its owner had returned from Italy, but the date samples were collected in relationship to when the cat's clinical signs first appeared and how those samples were collected (e.g., directly from the cat, off the floor) are also not known.

Because other etiologic causes for the cat's illness appear to have not been excluded and little is known about the samples in which viral material was detected, a clear link between the presence of viral material and clinical signs consistent with coronavirus infection cannot be established. The condition of the cat reportedly improved 9 days after onset of clinical signs."3

The Brussels Times, which reported the story on March 27th, made the point that, "So far, there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted from pets to humans."4

"We want to stress that this is an isolated case," professor Steven Van Gucht of the University of Liege told the Times. "Additionally, in this case, we are talking about a human-to-animal transmission, not the other way around. There are no indications that this is common. The risk of animal-to-human transmission is very small."

Belgium's National Council for Animal Protection (CNPA) reinforced that there is no known threat from pets, telling the Times, "Animals are not vectors of the epidemic, so there is no reason to abandon your animal."

Additional Guidance for Concerned Pet Parents

From the AVMA as of March 31st:

"Pets in homes with owners with COVID-19 — Whereas there is currently little to no evidence that pets or other domestic animals become sick with COVID-19, and no evidence that they can spread SARS-CoV-2, out of an abundance of caution, it is recommended that those ill with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus.

If you are ill with COVID-19 have another member of your household take care of walking, feeding, and playing with your pet.

If you have a service animal or you must care for your pet, then wear a facemask; don't share food, kiss, or hug them; and wash your hands before and after any contact with your pet or service animal.

You should not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home. Additional guidance on managing pets in homes where people are sick with COVID-19 is available from the CDC."

"Keeping pets safe — For responsible pet owners, preparing in advance is key. Make sure you have an emergency kit prepared, with at least two weeks' worth of your pet's food and any needed medications. Usually we think about emergency kits like this in terms of what might be needed for an evacuation, but it's also good to have one prepared in the case of quarantine or self-isolation when you cannot leave your home.

While we are recommending these as good practices, it is important to remember that there is currently no evidence that pets can spread COVID-19 to other domestic animals, including people.

Accordingly, there is no reason to remove pets from homes where COVID-19 has been identified in members of the household, unless there is risk that the pet itself is not able to be cared for appropriately. In this emergency, pets and people each need the support of the other and veterinarians are there to support the good health of both."