I get asked about this topic a lot. Early in the pandemic, I wrote a post about options for caring for pets of people with COVID-19.  Some things have changed a bit now that we know more know about SARS-CoV-2 in animals and the associated zoonotic risks, and we have a vaccine for people.

One example of a commonly encountered scenario is: A dog owner is being hospitalized because of COVID-19 and a friend or family member has been asked to take care of the pet.

What are the risks to the caretaker of the dog?

  • We don’t know. I’d consider it very low but I can’t say it’s zero.
  • Person-to-dog transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is fairly common in households where the owner has COVID-19, based on our and other groups’ surveillance efforts. However, dogs are not really a great host for this virus and infections are probably fairly low grade and transient, and therefore low risk for further transmission.
  • Dog-to-dog transmission of SARS-CoV-2 hasn’t been seen experimentally, but the studies to date have been fairly small so we can’t read too much into that.  Nonetheless, it’s clear that dogs are lower risk than cats for passing the virus on to other individuals. Yet, live virus has been grown from canine respiratory secretions, suggesting there is at least some plausible risk.

What can or should be done in this situation?  There are two key considerations:

1. Should the person in question agree to look after the animal at all?

  • This requires consideration of the risk status of everyone in the household (e.g.  is anyone at high risk of serious disease if they get infected?), vaccination status of everyone in the household, whether other pets are present, how well the dog can be contained in the household, and whether the household members are willing to accept a small degree of risk.
  • The best case scenario is to send the dog to a pet-free household where everyone is vaccinated and where they can keep the dog away from other people or animals (e.g. they have a fenced yard). Asking someone else to look after a pet like this was harder earlier in the pandemic, but now that we have highly effective vaccines, it’s easier.  Asking if someone from a fully vaccinated household will take the job is reasonable.

2. How should the dog be managed?

  • That also depends on the risk status of the household. In a vaccinated household, I’d say it can be “business as usual” in the house, but restricted outside. By that, I mean I’d do nothing different with the human-dog interactions in the household, but when the dog goes outside it should be under control (e.g. on a leash, or in a fenced yard) so the dog doesn’t interact with other people or dogs from outside the household.
  • If there are unvaccinated people in the household, it’s tougher. I still consider the risk of transmission from a dog to be very low, but I can’t say it’s zero. So, it would be prudent to keep the dog away from unvaccinated individuals as much as possible for the first 14 days (7 days is probably reasonable if it’s a major issue, but 14 days is ideal).  That doesn’t mean locking the dog in the bathroom and never going near it, but rather avoiding contact with respiratory secretions, not having the dog in the same small airspace for prolonged periods of time (e.g. not sleeping in the bedroom), and focusing on good hand hygiene.

The main issue is we just don’t know the risk. It’s definitely very low and could be zero, but I don’t think we can say it’s zero at this point. Vaccines are a game changer for these scenarios.

Okay, but what if the pet in question is a cat instead of a dog?

That changes the risk a bit, but not really the overall approach. Cats are more susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and cat-to-cat transmission can occur, so there’s also more concern about the potential for cat-to-human transmission.  That means the issues above all apply to cats as well, but are probably heightened.

My focus here would be on finding a vaccinated household to look after the cat, if possible.  If not, it’s a matter of restricting contact with anyone who isn’t vaccinated. The good thing about cats is they are (for the most part) easier to contain than dogs.  They can be kept in a large cage or kennel if necessary, or they can be confined more easily to certain areas of the house, and cats don’t need to go outside. So, if someone who’s unvaccinated has to take in a cat, it’s easier to limit contact. The concepts above still apply, with a goal of minimizing the closeness and duration of contact during the first 7-14 days after the cat is removed from the person who was infected with COVID-19.