Coronavirus of 2019 in humans — Should I be worried about my pet?
Dr W J Grobler BVSc
In December 2019 an outbreak of severe respiratory disease broke out in the city of Wuhan in China. The causative organism was soon identified as a Coronavirus and on closer inspection found to be genetically related to the virus causing the outbreak of SARS in 2002/2003. It was subsequently named SARS-Cov-19 (Severe acute respiratory disease Coronavirus of 2019) and the disease is abbreviated to Covid-19 (Coronavirus disease of 2019).
Because this is a previously unknown infection in humans it has spread exponentially since it has aquired the ability to transfer from human to human host. International travel has also made the world wide spread of the disease possible, mainly due to the fact that no symptoms are obvious during the incubation period as is the case with any other infectious disease. Testing for the virus is also delayed by some time after it has been suspected which could also cause more people to be exposed before quarantine measures have been put in place.
All the symptoms are initially focussed around the respiratory system: A runny nose, sneezing and coughing in the beginning followed by shortness of breath and difficult breathing. In some patients the disease becomes much more severe resulting in pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. The more severe form of the disease is more likely in elderly patients or patients with suppressed immune systems.
The disease presents like an infection with any other virus affecting the respiratory tract and is thus clinically indistinguishable from many diseases such as the common cold. A definitive diagnosis can only be made by proving the presence of the SARS-CoV-19 in respiratory secretions from sick people. This is done by sending a swab from the upper or lower airways to a laboratory that will do a PCR test on the sample. The PCR test (polymerase chain reaction test) is a modern day test that can detect minute quantities of an infectious agent's genetic material (DNA or RNA). This is done by multiplying certain characteristic pieces of the organism (be it a virus, bacterium or fungus) a billion fold and identifying it as belonging to that organism. The test is extremely sensitive and can detect very small quantities of viral material.
4. PET INVOLVEMENT
There is a strong suspicion that the virus originated from some exotic animal in a food market in Wuhan and thankfully a ban has been placed on the consumption of such animals in China. The SARS outbreak in 2003 was traced to civet cats and the MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2012 originated in Dromedary camels. SARS-CoV-19 is very similar to bat Coronaviruses genetically. At the present time there is no evidence that pets can become infected or that they play any role in the transmission of the disease. There are however two Coronaviruses that can infect pets, but they are not closely related to SARS-CoV-19.
Dogs can become infected by the Canine Coronavirus which causes gastroenteritis similar to Cat Flu (Parvoviral enteritis) but on a much lighter scale. Dogs seldom die from this infection unless it is accompanied by Parvovirus. There is a vaccine for Canine coronavirus that is sometimes used in puppies for their first three injections, but this vaccine will not protect against SARS-CoV-19. It is thus not necessary to have dogs vaccinated and as stated above there is still no evidence that they are susceptible to SARS-CoV-19.
Cats have their own Coronavirus called Feline Coronavirus. This also causes a mild to moderate form of gastroenteritis in young susceptible cats. The virus can however mutate in some individuals and it then causes Feline Infectious peritonitis which is a fatal disease. There is no vaccine for this disease at present, but again it would not have protected against SARS-CoV-19.
Just to stress this point: There is no evidence yet that pets can become ill when exposed to SARS-CoV-19 or are instrumental in transferring the virus to humans.
Virus particles are disseminated in small droplets when an infected patient coughs or sneezes. The virus can remain viable in these droplets for short time periods, but are easily killed when exposed to UV light, detergents and disinfectants. As there is no vaccine available yet, it is important to practise strict hygiene when visiting public places. The best prevention apart from wearing a face mask is to carry an alcohol based hand spray and to disinfect your hands after having touched any exposed surfaces, especially in often frequented public areas.
If you have been exposed to anyone infected it is important to try and limit any further exposure of those around you. Clinical symptoms only appear one to fourteen days after exposure but one may be infectious a day or two before actual symptoms start. Once they do seek medical help as soon as possible bearing in mind that any secretions from your respiratory tract may be infectious: Warn the medical staff beforehand.
Even though pets are not suspected of playing a role in the transmission of this disease it may be prudent to keep them from public places in areas where outbreaks are occurring until more is known about the disease. It is wise to avoid areas where large numbers of cases are occurring for your own sake anyway.
The following links have been used as sources for this article and may be consulted for more information: