There’s not as much to update about SARS-CoV-2 in dogs as there was in cats. We have more numbers than we did before, but the overall issues in dogs and our understanding of them haven’t really changed.
Spoiler alert: dogs and owners can both relax, as the risks are very limited.
Are dogs susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
Yes, but… not very… maybe. It depends on what you mean by “susceptible.”
Nice and clear, eh?
There’s a difference between getting infected and getting sick. Yes, dogs can clearly be infected. However, they don’t seem to be as susceptible as cats, and it’s debatable whether they get sick from the infection… I’m still a bit on the fence about that (more below).
How often do dogs get infected?
This is where we’ve gotten the most information recently. Studies that have looked at dogs living with COVID-19-infected people have generally identified impressive rates of human-to-dog transmission. In these studies, researchers either look for evidence of the virus itself in the dogs (usually using a PCR test) or they look for antibodies against the virus in dogs’ blood. The problem with PCR testing is that there’s a very narrow window of virus shedding in this species, so it’s easy to miss the window (in which case the test comes back negative even though the dog was infected) based on sampling logistics and timing. With good antibody tests, we can get a good idea of whether dogs were infected in the past (although there are potential issues there too) because the antibodies hang around for a lot longer.
Early in the pandemic, the virus was identified by PCR in dogs from infected households, setting the scene for further studies. The best initial effort was from Hong Kong, where they identified the SARS-CoV-2 virus in nasal, oral and rectal swabs from 2/15 dogs that were quarantined because their owner was infected. Neither dog had signs of infection, both developed antibodies to the virus, and gene sequencing showed that the viruses in the dogs were the same as the viruses in their respective owners. Subsequent work has found similarly, fairly low rates of PCR-positivity among dogs with household exposure to infected people (e.g. Hamer 2021).
Serological studies looking for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in dogs have shown that transmission is actually much more common than this, with rates of up to 46% in dogs from infected households (e.g. Stevanovic 2021, Hamer 2021). The results from our (hopefully soon to be submitted) Canadian study were similar, with about 43% of dogs with household exposure testing positive for antibodies to the virus.
Some studies have tested blood from undefined populations of dogs, for example by testing leftover samples of blood submitted by veterinarians to diagnostic labs. These studies tell us very little, because there’s no accompanying info about the dogs, particularly whether dogs were exposed to anyone with COVID-19. Not surprisingly, low rates of antibody detection (0.2-3.4%) have been found in these stuies (e.g. Ito et al. 2021, Patterson 2020, Smith 2021). Whether these positives represent infected dogs from households with infected people vs false positive results isn’t clear.
Do dogs get sick when they are infected?
That’s still unclear. In small experimental studies, dogs could be infected but didn’t show any signs of disease (e.g. Shi et al. 2020, Bosco-Lauth et al. 2020). Field studies are harder to evaluate because there’s nothing specific about the clinical signs we’d expect to see from SARS-CoV-2 infection in a dog (e.g. lethargy, coughing, sneezing, decreased appetite and other flu-like signs). These non-specific signs can be caused by lots of diseases in dogs, so if we find a dog that has evidence of previous SARS-CoV-2infection (i.e. antibodies) and it was reported to have been sick, it’s hard to say whether it was sick because of SARS-CoV-2 or whether it was sick because of something else and had an incidental SARS-CoV-2 infection. Larger and better designed studies are needed to figure that out.
In our preliminary work, we found an association between antibodies in dogs and the owner reporting that the dog was acting sick around the same time the owner was infected. That is to say, this finding was significantly more common in dogs that had antibodies than in those that didn’t, suggesting infection with SARS-CoV-2 could have caused (or contributed) to illness in (at least some of) the dogs. However, the signs that were reported were very mild and often vague (e.g. “the dog was a little quieter”), so while it might suggest that dogs can get sick, it would seem any illness is generally really mild.
Serious disease from SARS-CoV-2 has been identified in cats, and there has been some chatter about a very small number of dogs getting really sick or dying. However, when you consider the massive number of people that have been infected and the apparent high rate of transmission to dogs, if there was a true serious disease issue, I think we’d see more evidence of it by now. Also, we’re going to find incidental infection in some dogs with serious diseases or that die for other reasons, just because of the large number of infected dogs.
My take-home message on this at this point – with the variants that are currently circulating – is that SARS-CoV-2 poses very little health risk to dogs. More work on that is underway, though.
Can dogs infect other animals or people with SARS-CoV-2?
Probably not. Dogs are probably much lower risk than cats, and the even the risk from cats is still unclear. The fact that the virus has been isolated from dogs (e.g. Hamer 2021) is a concern, because if there was live virus in the dog’s nose, you have to assume there was some risk of exposure to individuals in-contact with that dog. Whether there was enough virus being shed to actually infect someone is completely unknown, and it’s probably exceptionally rare for a dog to be shedding enough virus to pose a risk. Experimentally, dog-to-dog transmission has not been seen. That’s not a guarantee that it can’t happen, since these experimental studies were conducted in an artificial environment with very small numbers of animals, but it provides more support of limited risk.
Overall, I’d say the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection from dogs is very low. I don’t think we can say it’s zero (we can’t guarantee much with this virus), but I think it’s very unlikely that a dog would pose a realistic risk to a person or another animal.
That said, why chance it? If a dog is infected or at risk of being infected (e.g. living in a household with an infected person), it should be kept away from other people and dogs. Dogs interact nose-to-nose and nose-to-bum a lot, and have a lot of contact with their faces, so keeping exposed dogs under control and away from others is a reasonable precaution. We’ve also seen transmission of other respiratory viruses between neighbouring dogs through fence-line contact, so this should be avoided as well, just in case.
Could dogs be an important reservoir of the SARS-CoV-2 virus once it’s controlled in people?
No, dogs are not susceptible enough to the virus to serve as a reservoir. To be a reservoir, the virus would have to be able to keep spreading dog-to-dog. That’s not going to happen because of the low susceptibility and short shedding time in this species. You’d need a very large number of dogs in regular close contact to even begin to have a risk, and then only IF dogs were able to effectively transmit the virus.
What about variants of concern (VOCs) in dogs?
Variants of SARS-CoV-2 such as alpha have been reported in dogs (e.g. Barroso-Arevalo 2021 and Hamer 2021). That’s expected as different variants become dominant in people, because people are the source of infection in dogs. Unless a human variant has more or less affinity for dogs than the original strains (possible, but not very likely), we expect the strains infecting dogs to be a reflection of the strains infecting in humans. I assume that large numbers of dogs have been infected with the delta variant as it now dominates in people as well.
Could new variants of concern emerge in dogs?
Almost certainly not. Variants develop by chance during viral replication. The more transmission, the more replication, the greater the risk of a variant emerging through random mutation. Since dogs are not going to be involved in sustained transmission of the virus, there’s pretty much no chance we’d see a new variant emerge in dogs and spread back to people. Yes, it just takes one replication error and transmission event for a variant to emerge, but the odds of it happening from a human-to-dog transmission AND the dog then infecting a person are pretty much zero.
Could dogs be a bridge to infecting wildlife with SARS-CoV-2?
Probably not, or at least much less likely than cats. Their low susceptibility, short period of infection, limited (if any) infectivity to others, and limited direct contact with susceptible wildlife mean the odds of dogs being infected by their owners and then infecting wildlife are very low.
So, we shouldn’t worry about SARS-CoV-2 in dogs?
Worry, no. But we still need to pay attention to it.
What should be done with dogs?
Do the same as for cats:
- If you are infected, try to stay away from animals… all animals, human and otherwise.
- If your dog has been exposed to a person with COVID-19, keep it inside and away from others.
The risks to and from dogs are exceptionally low, but precautions are common sense and easy… a few short term mild hassles for some peace of mind.
Ultimately, dogs are part of the family – so if your family is isolating, the dog should be included in that too.