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Oct. 19, 2021

Ask the Expert: COVID cases in animals

COVID-19 presented an opportunity to watch scientific and medical research unfold in real time and the public continues to rely on near-daily updates to better understand both the virus and the associated disease. Early in the pandemic, Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine shared what was known at that time about animals and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

With the Delta variant’s spread and additional reports of SARS-CoV-2 infections in animals, Kimberly Dodd, director of the MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, revisits the topic and provides updates as new cases are discovered.

Dodd is an internationally recognized expert in laboratory diagnostics and outbreak response for emerging infectious diseases. She is a champion for the critical role veterinary diagnostic laboratories play in protecting public and animal health locally, nationally and globally, and is passionate about supporting the development of the next generation of veterinarians and laboratorians.

Can animals get COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the term used for the disease in humans specifically. For animals, we refer to infection by the virus, SARS-CoV-2. Worldwide, there have been confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection in various animal species, including companion animals like dogs, cats and ferrets; zoo or sanctuary animals like great apes, big cats and otters; white-tailed deer; and farmed mink. Most SARS-CoV-2 infections in animals are asymptomatic or result in mild illness; severe disease is very rare. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association concluded the virus did not directly lead to illness or death in 8 of 10 dogs and cats that were infected with SARS-CoV-2 at time of death.

These animals are likely infected through close contact with people with COVID-19. It’s important to note, however, that the number of confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections in animals is very low; in the U.S., there have been fewer than 300 cases in animals. In contrast, as of October 2021, almost 45 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in humans, demonstrating that this coronavirus remains a human health concern.

Can animals get tested for the virus?

Because there is no evidence at this time that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus and the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low, routine testing of animals for SARS-CoV-2 is not recommended.* Decisions to test animals should be made collaboratively using a One Health approach between local, state and/or federal public health and animal health officials. Pet owners should contact their veterinarian if their animal is showing signs of illness.

The MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory can test animals for SARS-CoV-2 with approval from the state veterinarian. Veterinarians should contact their state veterinarian to obtain approval and for required information for testing. For Michigan animals, please call the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development at 800-292-3939.

In the United States, confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in animals are posted to the USDA website. Since beginning testing in May 2020, the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has tested more than 25 animals, including companion animal, livestock and wildlife species, with appropriate authorization.

If I get COVID-19, can I give it to my pet?

Most pets, primarily dogs and cats, with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection likely became infected through close contact with a person with COVID-19. If you are sick with COVID-19 — either suspected or confirmed by a test — the CDC recommends that someone else care for your pets if possible. Treat your pet as you would any other member of your family and avoid close contact like snuggling, sharing food and sleeping in the same bed. If you must care for your pets while you are sick, wear a mask and wash your hands before and after interacting with them.

If your pet begins showing signs of illness, call your veterinarian. Pets infected with SARS-CoV-2 may develop a cough, sneezing, difficulty breathing, runny eyes or nose, or appear sluggish. Your veterinarian, in consultation with the state veterinarian, will determine if testing for SARS-CoV-2 is recommended.

Can animals pass the virus to me or to other animals?

While we continue to learn about the virus, the information to date indicates that the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2 to humans is very low. Individuals can reduce that risk by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask around sick pets and washing hands frequently throughout the day.

*This guidance is shared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Organisation for Animal Health, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians and the National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials.

By: Courtney Chapin

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