When it comes to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, there's still a lot we don't know. The disease causes flu-like symptoms in people, including fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, and it also ranges widely in severity. The most vulnerable populations include the elderly, immunocompromised, and those with existing lung and heart conditions, but the disease has manifested and progressed in unpredictable ways. Because it's so new, humans don't have any built-in immunity to COVID-19, and doctors are still learning how it behaves in the human body and how to best address it.
Right now, we don't have any effective means of preventing the illness, which spreads between people via bodily fluids like saliva or mucus projected by a cough or sneeze. The best defense against passing it along, according to experts, are social distancing and washing your hands thoroughly. Both are important regardless of whether you think you've been exposed, since a comprehensive investigation by The Atlantic found that it's currently impossible to tell how many people have been impacted.
When it comes to your pets, according to the World Health Organization and veterinary experts at press time, you likely don't have to worry about spreading it to your furry friends (or them spreading COVID-19 to you).
Household pets likely can't transmit COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (at press time for this story) reported that your pet likely cannot transmit COVID-19 to you:
"While there has been one instance of a dog being infected in Hong Kong, to date, there is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit COVID-19. COVID-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. To protect yourself, clean your hands frequently and thoroughly."
Veterinarians believe that your pets can't get COVID-19.
Vets believe COVID-19 was probably on the aforementioned dog's fur, but did not sicken the dog. "The dog never became clinically ill, and it remains unclear whether the dog tested positive from being kept in an environment with a COVID-19-infected human or if the dog truly became infected with COVID-19," explains Christie Long, DVM, head of veterinary medicine at Modern Animal. "Since the dog lives with a COVID-19 patient, the potential is significant for the positive test to have come as a result of the dog picking up the virus from the environment with its nose."
Dogs can get some types of coronavirus.
The reason why vets initially weren't sure whether the pet in question was infected is because there are some strains of coronavirus that animals can get, especially puppies. "The disease tends to be mild and self-limiting," Long explains. "Puppies are the most at-risk for serious infection, and following your veterinarian's advice regarding keeping very young puppies quarantined at home until fully vaccinated (typically 16 weeks of age) is key to protecting them from the most common infectious diseases that can affect them." Vets are continuing to carefully monitor the coronavirus as we learn more about it, to ensure it doesn't mutate into a form that can make them sick.
Animals can transmit other diseases.
There are illnesses that can transmit from animals to people. Those are called zoonotic diseases, and the CDC posits that more than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals.
Animals can transmit disease through many of the same methods humans can, via bodily fluids, feces, and surfaces like aquariums, water and food bowls, and barns. Food- and water-borne illnesses, like salmonella and E. Coli that are transmitted by raw meat and eggs or fruits and vegetables that contain trace amounts of feces, are also classified as zoonotic. Zoonotic illnesses impact young children, the immunocompromised, and those older than 65 more than others.
You can keep yourself — and your pets — safe.
Humans can help to protect themselves from zoonotic illnesses, and keep their pets safe too, by washing their hands after touching any animal or its stuff. If you can't get to soap and water, hand sanitizer will work in a pinch. "As we've all been reminded, routine hand-washing is the first line of defense to the majority of common pathogens," Long says. "Washing your hands after interacting with your dog is an excellent habit to develop, and reminding small children of the same (or doing it for them) will help to keep everyone in the family healthy."
Always supervise young children around animals and teach them not to put their hands in their mouths after petting Fido or Fluffy. And as much as we love them, don't let your pets kiss your face, since saliva can carry germs. If you're worried about your pet tracking something nasty inside, even traces of COVID-19, The American Kennel Club notes that you can wipe their paws with paw wipes once you return indoors.
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