man petting cat in the kitchen

Pets and the coronavirus

Pets have always played an important role in our network of support, and during the pandemic we’ve seen countless examples of how their companionship can help reduce loneliness, feelings of isolation and improve our overall health and wellbeing.

Currently, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.  There are currently many different studies ongoing to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19. Thus far, only a relatively small number of animals worldwide have been reported to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, mostly after close contact with people diagnosed with COVID-19. 

For pet owners, it’s important to know that the advice from the experts is to treat pets as we do our family members, isolate them from other infected individuals and practice good hygiene when handling them: 

<p>1. Keep infected people away from pets</p>

<p>2. Keep exposed animals away from unexposed people and pets</p>

<p>3. Good hygiene and proper hand-washing should be practiced when handling pets.</p>

Should pets be tested for the virus that causes COVID-19?

Leading animal and human health authorities including the OIE,  AVMA and USDA advise that if a veterinarian recognises clinical signs consistent with SARS-CoV-2 infection in a pet which has had contact with a person with COVID-19, they should consult with the relevant public health authorities about testing. 

Do pets need to get vaccinated?

At this point the experts say no.  This is because the risk for humans to become infected by any means other than humans is considered minimal.  

For example, in the US, based on a lack of data and evidence of transmission and clinical disease in other species, the USDA  is accepting applications for a SARS-CoV-2 in mink given the recent outbreaks, but it is NOT accepting applications for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in dogs and cats. The USDA is closely monitoring the situation and may re-evaluate as more information becomes available.   

William Karesh, executive vice president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance, president of the World Organisation for Animal Health Working Group on Wildlife and an expert on the World Health Organization (WHO)'s International Health Regulations Roster of Experts focused on the human–animal interface and wildlife health, said in an article in Science, December 2020, that there’s no need for an animal vaccine from a public health standpoint. 

Can the various mutated virus strains affect how the disease develops in humans and pets?

These mutations arise in humans as a response by the SARS-CoV-2 virus to how the human immune system mounts a response against the virus. The virus tries to escape these forces by changing its ‘costume’ – the spike protein.  The spike protein experiences the brunt of that immune response and therefore the mutation(s) giving the virus a survival advantage can be found there.  

Because these coronavirus mutations arise in humans, it is less likely that they also provide a survival advantage for the virus in other species. If these newly mutated strains were to display an advantage in pets we would likely see the numbers of pets with the virus increase more quickly.  Currently, the numbers of pets known to have tested positive for the virus remain low, so for now we have to follow the numbers. 

What can pet owners do to keep pets healthy?

Treat pets as we do our family members: isolate them from other infected individuals and practice good hygiene when interacting with them.   

• Wash your hands after handling animals or their environment and supervise hand-washing for children under age 5. Your pet's fur is like any other surface, which is why  thorough handwashing is so important. 

• Protect your skin from direct contact with animal faeces. Wear vinyl household cleaning gloves or a plastic bag when cleaning up after a pet.

• Promptly wash bites and scratches caused by animals. Don’t allow pets to lick open wounds, cuts or medical devices.

• Pets shouldn’t lick the faces of young children and immunocompromised patients.

• Avoid contact with wildlife or potentially infected persons by keeping pets on a leash and otherwise indoors or in enclosed outdoor spaces such as a fenced in yard or kennel.

• Ensure pets stay healthy with regular veterinary visits (even virtual ones) and preventive care, including parasite prevention. If your vet hospital is only open for emergency or urgent cases, you may be able to get telephone advice on how to ensure your pet stays up-to-date with routine preventive care.

• Routinely clean and disinfect animal contact surfaces (e.g., cages, feeding areas).

• Seek veterinary care at the first sign of illness in an animal.

If pet fur can carry the virus, does that mean I should clean or wipe my pets down with bleach/alcohol/Clorox/Lysol, etc.?

No. While it’s easy to disinfect a doorknob or countertop with disinfectant wipes, alcohol or bleach, all of these things could harm your pet. There is currently no evidence to support additional bathing of pets as a result of COVID-19. When you do bathe your pet, always use a mild shampoo specifically formulated for pets and lots of water to avoid causing skin problems with harsher soaps or shampoos.

Keeping your pets active while practicing physical distancing

People around the world are doing their part to help flatten the curve by practicing physical distancing. Here are some tips to for fun and safe play at home. We trust this advice will help you keep your pet healthy and happy in the coming weeks and months.

Tips for all pets

• Closely monitor food portions and be careful not to overfeed or give too many treats – avoiding overfeeding is a simple way to help your pets maintain healthy body weight.

• Choose playtime carefully: the best time for play is often when cats and dogs are well rested and eager for human attention.

• Give lots of praise and encouragement. This helps make the experience fun and rewarding.

• Encourage appropriate play. Avoid scratching or nipping, and stop play immediately if pets behave badly.

• Have fun, but avoid over excitement or chasing, particularly when children are around.

• Keep play at ground level to avoid jumping up.

Adopting a pet that's the right breed for you

• When bringing a new pet home, it’s essential to adopt a pet that fits your lifestyle.

• Keep in mind your new pet will still need to fit in with your lifestyle as lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted.

• By understanding the breed makeup of the pet you want to adopt, you can:

• Learn what levels of activity they need.

• Predict their adult weight and size.

• Learn what types of inherited health conditions they may be susceptible to.

• Better understand their behavioral and nutrition needs.

• Shelters are a great place to find healthy dogs and cats of all breeds.

Adopting a pet that's the right age for you

• Keep in mind your new pet will still need to fit in with your lifestyle as lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted

• If you choose to adopt a young pet, remember they have unique nutritional needs.

• Young pets also need a significant amount of attention - more than more mature pets.

• Puppies need to be socialised, and you’ll want to start basic training early, especially potty training!

• Kittens and puppies will also require more frequent veterinary care to ensure they remain healthy, including vaccinations and parasite control.

• Many older dogs and cats are often house-trained, have lower energy levels, and also make good companions. 

• Shelters are a great place to find vaccinated, house-trained dogs and cats of all ages.

Tips for cat owners

• Engaging cats in 20-30 second games – perhaps during commercial breaks when you’re watching TV – is enough to tip the scales of energy balance in the right direction. Making them a regular part of everyday life is the best way to create a new routine.

• Try different activity feeders  (balls, mazes and towers) to find the one that fits your cat's dexterity level. 

• Vary where you put the feeders and which one you fill up at each meal to make meal time a scavenger hunt.

• Train them to play fetch with a toy so their hunting and pouncing instincts stay sharp.

• Switch to dangling toys to capture their attention, so cats can also play when you're not there.

Read Dr. Jo Gale's blog  for even more tips to keep your cat active and in shape. 

Helping cats avoid anxiety during lockdown

• Imposing a schedule for meals and activities – a new routine - will help keep them calm.

• Exercise is important for cats! Consider getting your cats to work for their food by using an activity feeder.

• Activity feeders are a great way to occupy your cats and make mealtimes last longer and feel more satisfying. 

• Make sure to keep plenty of litter trays available. Keep them fresh and kept in quiet areas, away from human traffic. 

• To keep your cats happy, make sure they have plenty of safe spaces to retreat to

• Cover a cardboard box or pet cage with a blanket to make a temporary hiding space for your cats, ideally away from the hustle and bustle of human activities. 

• If your home doesn’t have many nooks and crannies, you can create one!

Tips for dog owners

• Dogs need regular exercise and playtime. For the times you can’t leave the house, try setting up simple obstacle courses if there’s room and it’s safe to do so.

• Play hide and seek. Tell your dog to sit while you go and hide, call out and watch them search high and low for you. 

• Work on some obedience training and teach your dogs some new tricks. This is great to not only keep them physically exercised, but mentally engaged as well.

Keeping dogs active is part of being a responsible pet owner, and here is a good guide for new and more seasoned owners alike.

Learn about responsible pet ownership

Socialising your new puppy

• Gradually introduce your puppy to unusual objects (the vacuum, hairdryers, plastic bags, mops, brooms) and surfaces (wooden floors, grass, bubble wrap, etc.)

• Practice handling skills on a daily basis, so the puppy can get used to you touching his paws, ears, tummy, and tail, as well as opening his mouth for you to examine his teeth and gums. Be sure to pair these handling activities with a food reward.

• Sit with them in the car and introduce them to the sights and sounds (e.g., radio, wipers, etc.) one new thing at a time.

• Let the puppy take his time as he gets used to his surroundings - never force or coerce him.

• You can encourage him to explore using his favourite treats as a reward.

• If your pup shows any anxiety or discomfort with the sounds, turn them down to a volume they’re more comfortable with.

• When your pup is having fun, have a variety of background noises such as thunder, fireworks and babies crying.

Helping dogs avoid anxiety during lockdown

• Make life more predictable for them: add some structure back into their lives. 

• Setting a schedule for meals and activities – a new routine -  will help keep them calm. 

• Dogs are pack animals and yearn for social interaction. Make sure to set time aside for playtime

• Watch their body language and behaviour to determine the appropriate amount of playtime for them.

• When they’re bored, restless dogs often direct their energy into destructive activities, such as chewing up furniture or digging up flower beds.

Reducing the risk of separation anxiety for your dog after lockdown

• As we gradually start returning to our workplaces, some dogs may struggle with separation anxiety.

• Keep a consistent, predictable routine that includes daily exercise and some periods of “alone” time.

• Use training and enrichment activities to help them feel more comfortable at home.

• Watch out for signs of anxiety in your dog and adapt your approach accordingly. 

• If unsure, record a video of your dog while you’re away and consult your veterinarian.

• When you do eventually go back to your workplace, help manage the transition by establishing a network of people who can help.

Building the bond

Both cats and dogs can form deep emotional bonds with humans. Here is how we can build and strengthen them:

• Learn about pet behaviour. Take time to understand body language and facial expressions that might indicate happiness or stress. If pets feel they can rely on their owner for protection, they’ll feel closer to their human.

• Each pet is an individual. Become familiar with their likes and dislikes.

• Communicate clearly. Cats and dogs tend to focus on body language rather than speech. When training, use consistent signals. Good communication is the basis of a strong bond.

• Use treats responsibly. Giving treats is useful as positive reinforcement  during training, but remember to adjust the daily amount of food to avoid overfeeding.  

• Invest in training. It helps pets understand what we expect of them.

• Provide plenty of personal contact. Grooming and stroking doesn’t just feel good for pets— it also helps owners feel more relaxed. Affection, routines, and meeting a pet’s essential needs will strengthen your bond.

How the human-animal bond can benefit both people and pets

Pets can help us cope with stress and anxiety as we navigate these unprecedented times. Here are several research findings indicating how pet interaction could benefit our mental health:

• Having a pet may be linked to better overall heart health.

• Dogs' oxitocin levels (the "happy" hormone) increase when they  are interacting with people.

• Some older homebound adults who own cats or dogs have been shown to be better at paying attention, remembering details, and learning from past experiences than those who don’t own pets.

• Dogs may help children deal with stressbe more self-confident, and understand responsibility: when kids    help walk, bathe, and feed the dog, they learn how to take care of another living creature.

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