In early March, the World Health Organization declared that cats and dogs are evidently unaffected by the coronavirus, which came as a relief to many pet owners and anyone actively seeking out a new, shaggy quarantine buddy. The gist of their announcement was that, while these animals can be carriers of the coronavirus, they seem to experience no symptoms whatsoever and are almost certainly incapable of transferring it to people.
But since then, more and more animals have tested positive for the virus, including a few large cats at the Bronx Zoo and two pet cats in New York, rekindling fears among some animal owners. However, the general consensus remains that contracting the virus from an animal is highly, highly unlikely. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state, “At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low.” So as cute as it may sound, getting your dog or cat a mask is unnecessary (and most likely a waste of essential, much-needed medical equipment).
Nonetheless, one of the scariest characteristics of the coronavirus is that it can live on certain surfaces, particularly plastic and stainless steel, for several days. And while real, living dogs are made of neither, they do have a penchant for getting dirty and being subjected to affectionate, but potentially infectious embraces from just about everyone they come across (if I can make it out of my apartment complex without at least one neighbor casually touching my dog, I consider that a success). So, even if pets are unlikely to disseminate the coronavirus by sneezing, coughing or licking your face, should we be concerned about them carrying it around on their bodies and flinging it around our homes when they get the zoomies?
Not really, according to the experts.
As the American Veterinary Medical Association explains, “Smooth (non-porous) surfaces (e.g., countertops, door knobs) transmit viruses better than porous materials (e.g., paper money, pet fur). While we know that certain bacteria and fungi can be carried on fur and hair, we have no examples of where viruses have been transmitted by contact with pet hair or skin and, accordingly, no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can spread to people from the skin or fur of pets.” Generally, porous materials tend to hold onto and dehydrate viruses, lessening their infectious capabilities.
Or as Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist at HonorHealth, explained to NPR, “I would probably be more worried if somebody was coughing all over the place and went to touch my dog’s harness or something — something inanimate.” (So I guess now is a good time to start washing collars and leashes more frequently, if you want to be extra cautious.)
Nevertheless, as we continue to learn more and more about the coronavirus, “out of an abundance of caution,” the American Veterinary Medical Association (and most other public health organizations) suggest that we practice some common-sense measures to avoid getting sick, and that includes keeping your animals away from anyone who may be infected. And since you never really know with random people on the street (or even your neighbors), who you may run into while walking your dog, you should probably avoid indiscriminate petting for the time being, and keep washing those hands.
If you think your pup might get depressed from the lack of random belly rubs, maybe think again. “Many dogs won’t mind that strangers aren’t petting them,” says Zazie Todd, animal psychologist and author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. “Some will even be very happy about it, as some dogs don’t like to be petted by strangers, but in normal times, people pet them anyway. In particular, for people who have reactive dogs that might bark, growl or lunge if strangers or their dog get too close, walks are suddenly much less stressful with people staying away.”
And if your dog is used to physically greeting someone who they now need to socially distance from, just keep some treats nearby to divert their attention. “Dogs are most likely to notice if you meet someone they know, who they’re normally friends with, who now has to stay at a safe distance,” Todd explains. “If you’re worried about your dog pulling hard to get to them, carry some treats with you and use them to lure your dog in a different direction (and consider a no-pull harness if this might be a regular occurrence). Or if you’re planning to stand and chat from a distance, you can ask your dog to sit and keep rewarding them with treats for staying in a sit position. That will keep your dog happy earning lots of treats, instead of being petted by the other person.”
Overall, though, it seems that pets are the least of our worries when it comes to contracting the coronavirus, whether through their orifices or their fur, which is good news, because daily doggie cuddles really are the only thing keeping me going right now. C’mere, bud!