A tiger caught coronavirus. Are house pets vulnerable too?

People around the world are staying isolated to curb the spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, but while the virus has been a serious public health crisis for humans, many may be wondering: Are animals safe?

The world got a shock in early April when a tiger tested positive for coronavirus, and on April 22 the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that two pet cats in New York state had tested positive, the first confirmed pet infections in the country.

Should pet owners be worried? Here’s what we currently know about the coronavirus’ ability to infect household animals, and what pet owners should do.

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How did humans become infected?

The exact origin of COVID-19 is still a bit of a mystery. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes it as “a betacoronavirus, like MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV,” adding that “all three of these viruses have their origins in bats. The sequences from U.S. patients are similar to the one that China initially posted, suggesting a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir.”

Other cases of animals with coronavirus

The New York cats are not the first reported cases of household animals catching the coronavirus. In early March, authorities in Hong Kong reported that a dog had tested positive for the virus. Those authorities also claimed that the dog showed low levels of infection, and likely got the virus from its owner, who also had the disease. Later, another dog in Hong Kong was also reported to have the virus.

There have been reports of house cats catching the coronavirus, too: One in Belgium, and another in Hong Kong.

A recent study from Chinese researchers examined a number of different animals to see if they were susceptible to the coronavirus. The researchers found that the virus “can replicate in the upper respiratory tract of ferrets” and that it can “replicate efficiently in cats … and, perhaps more importantly, the virus can transmit between cats via respiratory droplets.” As for dogs, the results indicated “low susceptibility.”

While these results may seem troubling, many experts are not worried. There is a mere handful of cases of pets coming down with the disease, a drop compared to the ocean of human cases. Given how the outbreak has surged among human populations for months, the scattered reports of pet infections would indicate they aren’t particularly at risk.

Pet owners and coronavirus

Although evidence suggests a slim possibility that cats and dogs can catch the virus, pet owners might be wondering if they should socially distance from their pets. How would one even do that? Can you train your cat to start a Zoom meeting?

The CDC states that there is currently no evidence that household pets could spread it to humans, adding that “it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations,” such as the case of the Bronx tiger.

The CDC has set some guidelines for pet owners who may have the coronavirus. First, the guidelines recommend that “people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus.” They also advise avoiding physical contact — petting, snuggling, being licked — and if you must interact physically, wash your hands before and after. Basically, take similar precautions to those you would take with people in your household.

The CDC now recommends pet owners to isolate their dogs, cats and hamsters from coming in contact with other animals, either in the home or outside. The new recommendation comes after The New York Times reported that two domestic cats tested positive for the coronavirus.

For the latest updates on the novel coronavirus outbreak, visit the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 page.

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