Cat looking out window
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos
I think most people agree that the best thing we can do with pets of people with COVID-19 is to keep them in the home with the owner. However, what do we do with someone’s pet if they have to be admitted to the hospital and they live alone? Someone needs to take care of the pet. But who, and how? That’s a contentious topic.
The risk posed by that pet to someone outside the household isn’t clear. The risks are presumably greatest with ferrets and cats, and risks from dogs are probably pretty limited and short-term. But, since we can’t say the risk is zero, we want to keep things contained as much as is practical. Hong Kong’s approach of isolating and testing exposed pets isn’t going to be common, so we need another plan.
The main goal is to reduce contact of the animal with new people and new environments. Additionally, we want to make sure the animal stays away from people that are high risk for serious disease (e.g elderly, people with underlying respiratory disease or compromised immune systems, diabetics, smokers). That’s not always possible, but here is my take on some options, based on what we know to date.
Continued care in the pet’s household by someone who has recovered from COVID-19 (e.g. recovered family member goes to the house every day to care for the pet)
This may be the best scenario, since it appears that once you get over COVID-19, odds of a new infection (at least in the short term) are very low. If someone who has recovered can come into the house as needed to care for the pet, that keeps it contained and away from susceptible people.
Care by someone who has recovered from COVID-19 in the caretaker’s household
This is a good option too, assuming no one else in the caretaker’s household is susceptible (i.e. any other household members have also already recovered from COVID-19). It’s more convenient and the risk posed by moving the animal into a new house with non-susceptible people is probably inconsequential. Preferably the household doesn’t include any other pets either, or there’s a way to make sure the animals are kept in separate areas from each other.
Care by someone who has also been exposed (e.g. family member that doesn’t live in the household but had close contact with the sick person)
As the pandemic progresses, we’ll have more people who have recovered. However, not everyone will have a recovered person available to help. If a close friend or family member of the pet’s owner has already been exposed, bringing the pet into their household adds some risk (since the person hopefully hasn’t been infected) but less than bringing it into a household with no previous exposure (where the people are even less likely to be infected). From a pet containment standpoint, it would be ideal if the pet stayed in its own household and the exposed person went there to take care of it; however, the exposed person should be self-isolating and therefore not leaving their own house for 14 days. An exception might be if it was an immediate neighbour, where going next door poses no risk of exposing anyone else, but that would ideally be figured out with public health authorities.
In any situation, I would not want an exposed pet to be brought into a household where there were high risk people.
Care by someone who’s not recovered or exposed
This is less desirable since you’re bringing an unexposed person (or at least one that’s not known to have been exposed) into the situation. If that person is low risk for serious disease and doesn’t have high risk people at home, that helps. This situation increases the risks, though. The best approach would be short term, controlled visits to the pet’s household, just for basic animal care, and ideally wearing some form of personal protective equipment (especially for the first couple days – after that, at least there wouldn’t be any significant concerns with contamination of the pet’s haircoat). By keeping the duration of contact short, controlling the type of contact, and using good hygiene practices (especially hand hygiene), exposure risks can be limited.
Taking the animal into the new caretaker’s household increases the risk because the pet and the person will likely have increased duration and closeness of contact, and there’s less ability to use barriers and hygiene around any contacts. If the animal can be kept in a cage or crate all or most of the time, or at least for the first few days to negate coat contamination concerns (not ideal for the pet but reasonable in the short term), that would help.
If the “friends, family and benevolent neighbour” approach isn’t an option, then it gets trickier. Temporarily transferring the pet to a shelter would be a consideration, if the shelter is able and willing to handle potentially contaminated or infected pets, but that varies. There’s been a lot of planning by shelters for this contingency.
Vet clinics are another option. However, it’s not ideal given the limited isolation capacity in most clinics, as well as limited staffing and operations in some. Clinics that have the facilities, personnel and comfort with handling infectious cases would be an option. (We are set up to handle potentially infectious cases like this, but even our facility can only handle a limited number of animals.)
If exposed animals have to be moved from a household where there was a person with COVID-19, a bath or disinfectant wipe of the haircoat is reasonable to try to reduce any risk from contamination of the haircoat. We have no idea if this is a real risk, but the virus would presumably survive for some time on a hair coat if deposited there by the owner. How long? We don’t know. Probably minutes to hours, but that’s unclear. That’s why bathing and some additional short term precautions (e.g. cage/crate) might help. After a couple of days, we just need to worry about whether the animal is truly infected. We still don’t understand how common that is, or whether an infected animal can infect a person. Hopefully we’ll sort that out more soon. I’m set up to do surveillance on exposed animals but it’s been very difficult getting into households to get samples, for obvious reasons. As we learn more about how commonly or rarely exposed animals are infected, we can refine our recommendations. For now, it’s a tough balancing act between being prudent and practical.