A few years ago, I wrote a commentary in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases about pets and household quarantine. It was written after SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) had caused tremendous problems in many areas, including Toronto. The point I was trying get across was that while there was a strict household quarantine implemented for exposed people, there was no consideration of pets. We now know that cats can become infected with the SARS coronavirus, and can transmit it to other cats. However, when people were quarantined, there were no recommendations for pets – pets could interact with quarantined people, then visit non-quarantined family members, or interact with other animals or people outside. From my standpoint, this was a significant concern. If cats had become infected with SARS, they could have been a source of transmission in households and potentially beyond. If SARS had infected the feral cat population in Toronto, it might have been very difficult to eliminate. I encouraged groups to ensure that pets are included in household quarantine guidelines.
The topic is front and centre again with swine flu. We don’t know whether dogs and cats can be infected with this particular swine flu virus, but we DO know that cats can become infected with H5N1 avian flu and shed the virus. In my mind, that means that we should consider pets susceptible until proven otherwise.
So what should we do if people are being quarantined?
- If you are quarantining the family, quarantine the WHOLE family, including pets.
- Quarantined cats must be kept in the house. Quarantined dogs must be kept in the house as much as possible. They should only be taken outside to urinate/defecate, and this should be in a "remote" area where they can’t have contact with other people or animals. They should always be under physical control (e.g. on a leash) when outside.
- If a quarantined pet gets sick, a veterinarian should be called first. That way, it can be determined if the pet needs to be examined, and if so, the clinic can know when it’s coming and have protocols set up to handle it with infection control precautions.