Buddy, a seven-year-old German Shepherd, became the first dog in the US confirmed positive for COVID-19 after contracting the disease from his caretaker in April. Buddy died ten weeks after showing symptoms, and his case has raised several issues related to companion animals and the pandemic. First, although Buddy had other members of his interspecies family to care for him, many animals whose caretakers become ill with the virus do not have similar support systems in place, raising the question of what happens to pets when their caretakers become ill with the virus? This causes concern not only for the animals left behind when their solo caretakers are taken to hospital or do not return home, but also for those infected people fearing for their animals left behind and looking for options for assistance at an exceptionally trying time. 

In at least one instance, a solution was developed. In late April, New York City’s emergency management and animal welfare offices introduced a hotline for people who were struggling to care for their pets because of the virus. The hotline’s primary goal is to help struggling or sick New Yorkers avoid surrendering their pets, connecting callers to things like subsidized emergency veterinary medicine and the city’s network of free pet food pantries. Also helping animal companions left behind are team of specialists coordinated by Animal Care Centers of NYC, who don full-body personal protective gear to enter homes to feed—at no charge—famished animals whose owners are hospitalized with the virus, or to take custody of pets belonging to patients who do not return home. It would seem that this or similar programs could serve as a valuable model to be replicated in other areas with similar needs. (See, also, the ASPCA’s COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Initiative.)

Buddy’s situation also raises a second concern. At the time of his death, Buddy tested positive for both the coronavirus and lymphoma, leaving it unclear whether the cancer made him more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus, or if the virus was responsible for any of his symptoms. According to the first article referenced above, Buddy’s case highlights significant knowledge gaps about coronavirus in companion animals, specifically: Are animals with underlying conditions more likely to get sick from the coronavirus, just as humans are? The answer is that we don’t know, and we don’t know because little information has been collected or disseminated about infected companion animals. To date, twelve dogs and at least 10 cats have tested positive in the U.S. but few case details have been made available to researchers.

It appears that this research gap may be obscuring the number of animals who have contracted the disease. Recently, a small Canadian study (17 cats, 18 dogs and one ferret) suggests that a substantial proportion of companion cats and dogs whose guardians had been infected with COVID-19 tested seropositive themselves. The animals were first tested with PCR swab testing, then blood work was used to assess the presence of antibodies indicating past infection. While the PCR swabbing was negative for all animals tested, 20% of dogs and 88% of the cats tested positive for IgM or IgG antibodies, used to detect recent or past infections, respectively. Researchers here concluded that a “substantial proportion of pets in households of persons with COVID-19 end up developing antibodies.” 

To be clear, both the CDC and the World Health Organization of Animal Health send similar messages: While it appears the virus can spread from people to animals in some situations, there is to date no evidence that animals play a significant role in the spread of the virus. Therefore, neither the CDC nor WHO are pushing testing in animals—in fact the opposite is true. The CDC has a guidance on COVID-19 and animals for veterinarians that concerns when to test, which it argues against. The International Companion Animal Management Coalition echoes the “do not test” position, making “a plea to the veterinary community to limit their use. Positive test results have no impact on how vets treat symptoms as there are no specific treatments for SARS-CoV-2 in animals. However there is a significant risk of causing unnecessary fear in owners and communities from the media attention each positive case brings.” This position would appear to go against the calls for more testing and research noted above.

Although animal companions usually have mild symptoms and recover, these instances argue that there is much to do research-wise to keep them safe and healthy amidst—and from—the pandemic. A recently developed platform might soon help fill this research gap by serving as a repository for research. The EmVetNet - Covid 19 Thematic Platform on Animal Welfare is a collaboration among Lincoln Memorial University (LMU), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE), the International Coalition for Animal Welfare (ICFAW), the Israeli State Veterinary Services and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). The group seeks to query how the pandemic has resulted in three threats to animal welfare: (1) the measures taken to contain the disease has caused disruptions in many animal-related activities, such as shelters, zoos, riding schools and institutes using laboratory animals; (2) our food supply chain have been impacted by disrupted trade and changed consumption patterns, having an impact on the farmed animals, and (3) the pandemic will have a lasting economic impact, which in turn again will impact animal ownership and animal care. The goals of the platform are to map the worldwide impact of COVID-19 on animal welfare, to observe trends, to identify lessons, and share solutions and best practices in order to aid research, policies, and future events. The platform collects information on all animals; livestock and companion animals (dogs/cats), leisure horses, zoo and exhibition animals, lab animals and wildlife. All stakeholders may participant, and we encourage those with knowledge about these issues to do so through this easy-to-use Qualtrics survey platform.

For those of us who live with cats, dogs and other animal companions, the message continues to be to observe careful hygiene if we are ill lest our animal friends contract the virus from us. Until more research fills the gaps of knowledge about when and how COVID-19 is passed along—and should be treated—in our companion animals, the bottom line at this point is to avoid contact with other animals if we are sick with COVID-19. 

Finally, in response to my reporting last month about higher rates of animal abandonment at particular shelters, a reader pointed out that while specific shelters may be having increased intakes, overall, there is good news. The national database of sheltered animal statistics developed by the nonprofit organization, Shelter Animals Count, has been producing special COVID impact reports, and the data comparing January-August 2019 and 2020 show that, for the over 1300 reporting agencies, intakes for 2020 are in fact down compared to 2019.