Cummings School scientists launch a study to better understand the novel coronavirus and how it may infect pets and other domestic animals
As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded around the globe, there have been a few reports of pets and other animals kept in captivity being infected.
Two dogs, both in Hong Kong, and two cats, one in Belgium and another in Hong Kong, reportedly tested positive for SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in one tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York, where other tigers and lions also had symptoms of a respiratory illness but were not tested. Another study identified coronavirus antibodies in otherwise healthy cats in a shelter.
(Editor’s note: On April 22, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the National Veterinary Services Laboratories had confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection in two owned cats in New York—the first pets in the United States to test positive for the novel coronavirus.)
These reports suggest that cats, dogs, and other animals could be infected by the novel coronavirus, said Cummings School professor and virologist Jonathan Runstadler, although there’s currently no evidence of SARS-CoV-2 spreading from humans to pets—or vice versa—in North America.
“Given how widespread COVID-19 is in the U.S., the fact that we have not seen this phenomenon [widely] here means that the risk of pets serving as a source for COVID-19 infection or for pets catching the disease from humans must be extremely low,” he said. “However, not many pets or other animals are being tested, so we don’t have systematic studies or data to support that conclusion.”
To learn more about possible transmission, Runstadler’s lab has launched a new research project called the Coronavirus Epidemiological Research and Surveillance (CoVERS) study.
Animal owners can choose to participate in the Tufts study to help scientists better understand the novel coronavirus and how it may infect and be shed by pets and livestock.
To enroll, owners of animals currently being treated at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center for life-threatening illnesses or injuries during the COVID-19 crisis sign a consent form. Once clients opt into the study, veterinary staff can then take swabs from the animal’s nose and mouth, which the scientists analyze for viral genetic material called RNA.
The CoVERS team hopes their work will reveal which domestic species can get the new coronavirus, if animals can further transmit it to other animals, and if the virus causes disease in any animals. The researchers also are surveying all owners participating in the study about how they normally interact with their animals to see if any particular behaviors may contribute to the spread of the virus from humans to animals.
The testing does not employ kits that could be used to diagnose the novel coronavirus in the general public.
“We believe that human testing should be the top public-health priority right now,” said Cummings School postdoctoral researcher Kate Sawatzki, the lead investigator for the CoVERS study. “The reagents—or ‘ingredients’—and machines we use for our testing are not approved by the FDA to diagnose people with COVID-19, even under current emergency use authorization, and our testing is for research purposes only.”
No Serious Concern for Pet Owners
COVID-19 should not be a particular concern for pet owners, Runstadler said. That said, people should heed advice to take extra precautions around their pets when they’re sick themselves and remember their animals when gathering supplies to stay at home and help flatten the curve.
However, Runstadler stressed that it’s crucial that scientists continue to look for the novel coronavirus in pets and livestock while the outbreak is ongoing. That’s because even though the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spreading from people to domestic animals may be very low, “catching such a rare transmission event via sampling could mean huge leaps in what we know about the coronavirus’s ability to spread between humans and animals.”
By looking to catch instances of such a spillover via natural infection versus a lab experiment, the Cummings School scientists hope to build our knowledge of what a dangerous virus looks like. “We want to know if there are any particular genetic characteristics or mutations that allow the virus to make that jump or adapt to spread within the species it jumps into,” Runstadler explained.
“Ultimately, our goal is to prevent the next pandemic,” said Sawatzki. “The coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 looks like it had a single source genetically—a virus that has been in bats for probably a thousand years. This means it only took one interaction somewhere for it to spill over from animals to people, whether that was from it going into another wildlife species first and then into people or moving straight from a bat to a person, and to catch fire as an international pandemic. We don’t want something like this to happen again.”
In addition to testing patients needing emergency care in its small and large animal hospitals, the CoVERS team also has begun working with Tufts Veterinary Field Service and interested farmers to test livestock for the new coronavirus.
And, soon, the researchers will open the study up to all animal owners willing to send in swab samples from their pets for testing.
“Maybe we will find that even in the rare instance that a pet gets infected from its owner, that transmission event is a dead end, and the virus goes no further. If that’s true, that’s great,” said Runstadler.
“But right now, we just don’t know enough about the way this virus might move back and forth between species,” he said. “It may be very unlikely that the virus will infect an agricultural animal such as a pig and then adapt so that it can spread in that population. But the public-health implications of that event would be large.”
How to Protect Your Pet from COVID-19
Until more is known about this virus, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that if you are ill with COVID-19, you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people. When possible, have another member of your household or business take care of feeding and otherwise caring for any animals, including pets.
If you have a service animal or you must care for your animals, including pets, wear a cloth facemask; don’t pet, kiss, or hug them; and wash your hands before and after any contact with your pet or service animal. You should not share food, dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home.
Additional guidance on managing pets in homes where people are sick with COVID-19 is available from the CDC.
Out of an abundance of caution, the AVMA also recommends appropriate physical-distancing practices to keep all pets safe, including not letting pets interact with people or other animals outside the household; keeping cats indoors, if possible, to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people; walking dogs on a leash, maintaining at least six feet from other people and animals; and avoiding dog parks and other public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.