UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Despite the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a domestic cat — announced today (Oct. 20) by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture — veterinary experts say residents should not be concerned about contracting the virus from pets and other domesticated animals.
However, people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infections should take precautions to protect the health of their pets, according to Suresh Kuchipudi, clinical professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“We don’t believe that animals, especially pets and other domesticated animals, play a significant role in spreading the novel coronavirus,” said Kuchipudi, who also is associate director of Penn State’s Animal Diagnostic Laboratory.
“The few reports of animals testing positive are believed to be cases where the animals got the virus from close contact with infected humans, and so far, there is no evidence that animals can transmit it back to people,” he said.
The Pennsylvania cat, a 16-year-old male in Cumberland County, lived in a household with several people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. After suffering worsening respiratory distress, the cat was humanely euthanized. It was one of eight cats to test positive for COVID-19 in the United States to date, all of which were known to have prolonged exposure to infected people.
Symptoms of COVID-19 in pets include fever, coughing, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, lethargy, sneezing, nose or eye discharge, vomiting, and diarrhea. The Department of Agriculture advises pet owners to contact their veterinarian if their pets exhibit symptoms after contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.
Kuchipudi echoed advice from state animal health officials for COVID-19-positive pet owners to help keep their animals healthy:
• Avoid contact with pets and other animals, as you would other people.
• While under isolation, arrange for another household member to care for your pets.
• Avoid contact such as petting, holding, snuggling, facial contact and sleeping in the same bed.
• Wear a mask and wash your hands before feeding or tending to your pets if you are unable to find alternative care for them.
Kuchipudi noted that pets have other types of coronaviruses that can make them sick, such as canine and feline coronaviruses. These other coronaviruses cannot infect people and are not related to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Penn State’s Animal Diagnostic Lab, part of the three-lab Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System, has the capability, equipment and supplies needed to test animals for SARS-CoV-2. These tests are designed specifically to avoid any cross-reactivity with common veterinary coronaviruses affecting companion animals. However, at this time, the Penn State lab will provide animal testing for SARS-CoV-2 only if requested and approved by Pennsylvania public health and animal health officials.
Although SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have originated in bats, Kuchipudi explained that viruses can evolve to infect other species. This evolution, however, generally takes a long period of time. In addition, a virus’s ability to adapt and spread efficiently in a new host species requires sustained transmission among members of that species.
He said COVID-19 infection in animals is not widespread, and the few known cases are linked to the animals’ proximity to an infected human.
“Based on the scientific evidence to date, it is safe to assume that the cases in pets are just opportunistic infections and that the virus does not replicate very efficiently in domestic animals, which means that these animals likely are not a source of infection to humans,” Kuchipudi said.
–Chuck Gill, Penn State University