The recent reports of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus that’s been identified in China certainly raise the stakes. While this virus still seems to be less transmissible and less virulent than its relative, the SARS coronavirus, it’s pretty early to have a lot of confidence in that. Lessons seem to have been learned from SARS, but at the start of an outbreak it’s hard to predict too much.

What’s the companion animal spin?

Human infections were first linked to an animal (seafood) market. That’s not surprising, since SARS also started at an animal market, and lots of undiscovered coronaviruses are lurking in different animal species (especially bats). The fact that the outbreak was first linked to an animal market doesn’t mean the animals were the source (because there are also lots of people in markets), but it would make sense.

If that’s the case, it’s a bit optimistic for us to think that this virus would be able to infect only its host species and people.

Looking back at SARS, we know that virus can infect a few different mammals, including cats. When SARS was a problem in Canada, people who were exposed underwent voluntary household quarantine, meaning they were supposed to stay at home and away from family members for a period of time. Yet, nothing was said about pets. I could have been quarantined in my basement, away from my family, but still have had regular contact with my cat, who then could have had contact with the rest of the family (and if he was an indoor-outdoor cat, contact with other cats). Think what would have happened if SARS was able to establish itself in the feral cat population of a city like Toronto. It’s probably not transmissible enough between cats to do that, but we didn’t know that at the time. I remember emailing someone who was dealing with the SARS crisis in Ontario at the time about the pet issue, and the response basically was “Good point. Gotta go.” When dealing with a crisis, something ancillary like that isn’t high on the priority list.  We wrote a commentary about the potential risk of pets in household quarantines related to SARS a little while later that got some attention, but I’m not sure there was much action.

That’s why we need to be proactive. For containment measures for SARS, this new coronavirus or any other new disease, we need to assume that multiple species can be affected until proven otherwise, and we need to act accordingly. That doesn’t necessarily need to be complex. It might just be making sure animal contact questions are asked along with human contact questions, that quarantine protocols consider what to do with exposed animals, and that quarantined individuals are kept away from animals. We developed guidelines for management of pets related to Ebola exposure a few years ago, and it took a lot of time to get it right.

Hopefully we don’t have to worry about it, but it’s better to plan ahead than try to catch up.