RI State Veterinarian: ‘Small risk’ owners can infect pets with COVID-19


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State and federal health leaders say the risk your pet will infect you with COVID-19 is very low, but warn there is still a risk you can infect your pet.

Throughout the pandemic, Rhode Island State Veterinarian Scott Marshall, DVM, has been on weekly calls with agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plus the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians to learn the latest about how the virus is affecting animals.

“Animals seem to be if not a zero risk, then extremely low, risk of causing disease in people,” Marshall said.

Marshall said alternatively, there is a risk humans can infect their pets, although the risk is small.

“I think the number that we heard on the last call was that worldwide, there’s only been 14 cases of transmission from infected people to a pet animal,” he continued.

Marshall says while the risk is low, people should still be cautious, and there are simple steps you can take to keep you and your pet safe.

“If they’re sick they shouldn’t snuggle with their pet, because we have had very few, but sporadic reports of people transmitting the virus to their pets,” Marshall said.

He added pet owners should follow the recommended mask-wearing, sanitation and social distancing guidelines.

“An infected person is really the risk of transmission,” Marshall said. “Avoid dog parks where there’s going to be large crowds, any event where there might be a large number of people because that’s where the risk is, not from pets.”

This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration created a video for pet owners explaining what’s known about the virus as it relates to animals.

The video states preliminary research shows cats and ferrets are more likely to get the virus than dogs, but Marshall says cat and ferret owners should not read into that data too much.

He says the study in question showed ferrets and cats were relatively easily to experimentally infect.

“The way that they infected them experimentally is they took actually high concentrations of the virus and distilled it into the nose and injected into the trachea, which is not normal routes of transmission,” Marshall said. “So to say that these animals are susceptible to natural routes of transmission would be inaccurate based on that one study.”

Marshall did note a “concerning” report from The Netherlands, where there were infections on a mink farm.

“So these are mink that are raised for fur production, and evidently, an infected person transmitted to mink, and then there was some transmission between mink on the farm, at least that’s what we’re thinking now,” Marshall said.

He added since mink are a separate species and not typically kept as pets, that there has not been any recorded transmission from animal to animal in the United States.

On a state level, Marshall says he has not received requests for testing, and that nothing reported to him has met the threshold for testing.

If a veterinarian suspects an animal is infected with COVID-19, the vet would run through a list of questions for the owner, but testing would be reserved for animals that came from a household where there was a case of the virus.

Then, if the animal is also showing signs of the virus that cannot be ruled out by more common causes, a test would be considered, according to Marshall.

Marshall notes testing is allowed to be done at private labs for screening. However, if the lab records out a positive result, it would have to be confirmed at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.

“So anybody that’s gone and had a test done at their veterinarian, and the test results have come back from the National Veterinary Services Lab, those should only be considered presumptive positive until NVSL confirms,” Marshall said.

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