Editors note: Since the publication of this article, it has been determined that both big cats and domesticated cats can be infected with COVID-19. You can read more about the implications of those findings here.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has quickly spread around the world, and along with this has come a media storm like no other. As an expert coalition of animal welfare organizations with particular expertise in Asia, we wish to publicly clarify a number of issues regarding companion animals and the virus. Here we present sources of reliable information, and dispel some untruths that have been circulating since the virus began in China.
Please help us by sharing this information to assure pet owners that they do not need to abandon their animals, and to limit the sensationalism in the news of an already extremely stressful situation.
Is this a “Chinese virus’?
No. The virus did originate in Wuhan, China, but across Asia (and across the globe) there are animal markets that are very capable of producing a virus such as COVID-19. All governments must crack down on animal wet markets to avoid this occurring again. Please see our previous position statement.
Have there been any companion animals diagnosed with COVID-19?
Yes, but this is open to interpretation. Being diagnosed as having viral material present is not equivalent to having the disease COVID-19 itself, or being infectious and able to transmit the disease to people or other animals.
In Hong Kong two dogs belonging to and living with confirmed COVID-19 patients from separate households tested positive for the virus. A second dog living in one of the households alongside the patient and the positive dog tested negative. Both dogs who tested positive subsequently tested negative on two occasions and they never showed any symptoms linked to their positive test results.
Dr. Malik Peris, chair in virology at the University of Hong Kong, said, “Neither of the two cases had the disease caused by the coronavirus. The public might have confusion, but when dogs are infected, it does not mean they have the disease or they are sick.”
As of March 24th, eight cats and 14 dogs with direct or close contact to confirmed human COVID-19 cases had been quarantined and tested in Hong Kong with 20 out of 22 testing negative. Four animals have already been released from quarantine.
Unfortunately, one of the dogs that tested positive, a 17 year old pomeranian with multiple underlying health problems, passed away some days after release from quarantine. Speculation is that the cause of death could have been a combination of old age, underlying health problems and the stress from the quarantine. COVID-19 itself is not believed to be a factor.
Can you catch COVID-19 from your companion animals?
No. There is absolutely no evidence that the novel coronavirus can be passed from animal to human. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have issued statements confirming this: “at present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus.”
IDEXX veterinary laboratory in the United States has announced that during test development they have tested thousands of cats and dogs for the novel coronavirus. None tested positive.
Infectious disease expert Professor Vanessa Barrs, Chair Professor of Companion Animal Health and Disease at City University’s Department of Infectious Diseases and Public Health, emphasized that there is no evidence that our pets are at risk of developing the disease linked to the novel coronavirus, and that pets are not involved in the spread of COVID-19.
Are cats and dogs being killed in China in an attempt to contain the virus?
There have been some isolated reports of dogs and cats being killed in China in an attempt to contain the virus. Our coalition members who work on the ground in China have found that many of these reports were not correct.
For example, social media posts blamed COVID-19 panic for the killing of multiple cats and dogs in Hunan. In fact, these killings occurred when a rabid stray dog attacked people and the local authorities reacted by killing dogs and cats within a 5 kilometer radius. Please note that AfA does not condone such a response, but it is damaging to falsely attribute this incident to COVID-19. In another case, a Facebook post claimed that dogs were being culled in Huzhou City in response to virus fears. Our teams have found no evidence of such a cull, and in fact the photo that accompanied this post may not have even been taken in Huzhou.
Most everywhere, we have seen the opposite to be true; people are overwhelmingly showing their support for companion animals.
We encourage members of the public to share only information that is verifiable, and to avoid sensationalism when sharing news about the situation in China. This will enable our coalition to work more effectively to educate both authorities and the general public about the fact that the virus cannot be passed from animals to humans.
Are people abandoning their animals?
Yes. There have been such cases reported from all over the world, including some cases in China. As a result of the initial panic earlier this year, some people in Wuhan, where the virus began, did abandon their animals. Our member organizations worked hard to offer advice to shelters and to the public, and to distribute food to people who needed it for their companion animals.
We have found no evidence that cat and dog shelters in China have been unable to cope.
Are many more animals being used in medical experiments to find a vaccine?
Due to the current medical research methodology of using animals as the first stage of research before human trials, animals are being used in medical research in pursuit of a vaccine. Advances in science, specifically genome analysis and computer modelling, should enable improved experimental protocols and in some instances research may progress directly to human trials, as seen in the United States.
Please refer to Cruelty Free International’s statement here, which states: “reports from the US suggest that the first trial of a COVID-19 vaccine has begun in human volunteers following extremely minimal animal experiments.”
For more information
Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) advice on looking after your companion animals during this pandemic
What you can do to help
Share news only from trustworthy sources.
Maintain good hygiene practices. Pet owners need not be overly concerned and under no circumstances should they abandon their pets.
Write to your embassy and please use your voice to ask for a total ban on animal markets. Write a polite email to your country’s embassy in the country you are appealing to and call upon them to enact a ban with immediate effect. All embassies have a responsibility to pass on issues of concern directly to their governments. Help us make them aware of this issue. Find your embassy here.
Featured image: a dog lying on the floor. Image credit The Man-Machine, CC BY-SA 2.0.