Like many of you, our team at the Dog Aging Project has been watching the unfolding situation with COVID-19 in the US and around the world. A recent report from Hong Kong connecting the novel coronavirus to dogs has raised questions and concerns, which our veterinary team addresses below.
What are coronaviruses and how are they related to animals?
The coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, which can infect dogs, cats, farm animals, and wildlife. The trouble with coronaviruses is that they tend to mutate (change their genes) over time. Sometimes they share genetic material with other strains of coronaviruses. Such recombination (genetic mixing) can create new strains of coronaviruses that behave differently from previously known strains.
Scientific evidence suggests that this new form of coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, originated in bats and developed the ability to infect humans. Once a virus mutates in this way and “spills over” into a new species (in this case, humans), it generally tends to stay there. That is, it becomes a virus that infects humans rather than other animals. While back-and-forth transmission between humans and other animals is possible, our best scientific understanding at this time suggests this is unlikely.
What is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is the illness caused by this new form of coronavirus, which is called SARS-CoV-2, which stands for “Severe Acute Respiratory Virus-CoronaVirus-2”.
What are the facts about the dog in Hong Kong?
A dog in Hong Kong whose owner was sick with COVID-19 tested positive for the presence of the virus in its mouth and nose on two separate occasions. As far as we know, that dog was never sick. It is not clear exactly what this means.
The owner, who was sick, was spreading viral particles around the home environment and contaminating various surfaces. It is possible that the dog may have licked the owner or these contaminated surfaces, and the virus in its mouth was detected by scientists. It does not necessarily mean that the virus was actively multiplying in the dog’s body.
While dogs can be infected by a variety of coronaviruses, we do not know whether or not SARS-CoV-2 can infect dogs or if they can become sick with COVID-19.
Could infected dogs spread SARS-CoV-2 back to humans?
Currently there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is being transmitted between people and pets, or from pet-to-pet. There are no reports of a person becoming ill with COVID-19 from a dog (or cat). However, dealing with emerging viruses is always difficult because we cannot predict all of their behaviors accurately. We need to be realistic about what we do and don’t yet know.
Because the virus was detected in the mouth of the dog in Hong Kong, we have to consider that this kind of transmission could occur. It is possible that a sick person could sneeze or cough and that a dog could lick up these droplets and then lick someone else. In this way, the dog would not have to be sick, but it would act as a vector, carrying the virus from a sick person to a well person. As far as we can tell, this is a very, very, unlikely occurrence, but it could happen.
Are there precautions to take just in case?
Practice social distancing. Most areas are now restricting public gatherings in an attempt to flatten the infection rate and protect lives. You can read more about this at FlattenTheCurve.com. Take your dog for a walk but avoid crowded places or busy dog parks. Other things you should do:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after playing with or petting a dog or cat, especially after contact with pet saliva or feces.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth. From there, the virus can enter your body and can make you sick.
- Practice good respiratory hygiene, which means covering your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then dispose of the used tissue immediately.
- Stay home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, dry cough or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call your provider in advance so they can be prepared for your arrival. Follow the directions of your physician or local health authority.
- If you are sick, avoid close contact with other members of your household, including your pets. Have another member of the household care for your animals. If you must look after your pet while you are sick, maintain good hygiene practices and cover your face if possible. (We recognize that there are significant shortages and that we need to prioritize masks for healthcare workers. A bandana, if washed frequently, will work just fine as a face shield while caring for pets.)
Where can I get more information?
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there. You can get reliable information from the sites below as well as from your local public health authorities.
- World Health Organization Coronavirus Disease Outbreak
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Organization for Animal Health
- CDC Recommendations for Pet Owners
- Emerging Coronavirus Strains and Veterinary Patients
We will continue to monitor this situation closely. When new information comes to light, we will inform you immediately through our email newsletter (subscribe in the footer of this page), this blog, and our social media feeds on Twitter and Facebook. If you have questions, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our best to find the information you need.
For now, be well, stay safe and give your furry friends an extra snuggle from all of us at the Dog Aging Project!