Of Pets, People and Lucky Ducks: Risks of COVID-19 Transmission

Credit: iStock

This summer, many mourned the passing of Buddy, a 7-year old German shepherd who was the first dog diagnosed with COVID-19 in the U.S. He was diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in May. By July, his owners reported he was having a hard time breathing and was throwing up blood. At first, these symptoms sound a lot like complications associated with COVID-19. However, after his death, Buddy’s doctors discovered that he was also suffering from lymphoma, a type of cancer that can cause similar symptoms.

Buddy’s case has left many pet owners wondering about their own animals’ risk of becoming infected. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 21 cats and 18 dogs across the U.S. have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since April. In addition, several lions and tigers—but no bears!—at the Bronx Zoo in New York and five minks at a Utah farm have caught the virus, too. This suggests that the number of coronavirus cases is not as high in animals as in people. But not nearly as many animals are being tested, making it hard to compile accurate statistics.

Studies suggest that the coronavirus can pass from animals to animals, at least in cats. While the SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, coronaviruses in general are no stranger to cats. A recent post on the Dr. Dolittle blog discussed a potential new drug for COVID-19 that was being developed to treat a potentially fatal disease in cats called feline infectious peritonitis. Now researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada are studying the drug to see if it can prevent the coronavirus from reproducing.

SARS-CoV-2 also appears to pass from humans to animals, and people have reportedly contracted the illness from minks in at least two cases. However, it’s not clear whether household pets can give the virus to their owners. Researchers have been exploring this risk.

Tests show that dogs, cats, minks, hamsters, rabbits and common marmosets are susceptible to developing COVID-19. Pigs, chickens and ducks don’t seem likely to become infected, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “lucky duck.” We don’t know if other animals or livestock that closely associate with people are at risk of contracting the virus from humans and vice versa.

Current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include isolating pets from other animals and from any infected family members. But don’t put a face mask on your pets. If you suspect your pet may have COVID-19, call your veterinarian.

Karen Sweazea, PhD, is an associate professor in the College of Health Solutions and the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

Leave a Reply