Andi Adams, veterinary assistant at the Pet Resource Center of Kansas City, with a kitten. Photo courtesy of Michelle Rivera.

While most of the world has focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19 through people, there’s another vector living in many of our homes: Pets.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent data, more than 3,625 animals have been tested for COVID-19 across the U.S. —  131 positive. Snow leopards in Kentucky. Tigers in New York. Gorillas in California. Household pets can also catch COVID-19 from their owners, in turn potentially infecting other pets or humans.

So far, three pets in Kansas have tested positive for COVID-19, and none have tested positive in Missouri.

“If the animals do get it, a lot of times it is asymptomatic, or it is so mild that you wouldn’t go through that process” of testing, said Jessica Nichols, a veterinarian at the Pet Resource Center of Kansas City.

The first animal that tested positive for COVID-19 in Kansas was a dog seen by a veterinarian for suspected cancer, said Ingrid Garrison, the state public health veterinarian for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The dog had a runny nose and its owners had recently tested positive for the coronavirus, so the vet decided to test for COVID-19. That dog and another dog in the same household tested positive, and recovered at home.

Chris Lopez, mobile services coordinator for the Pet Resource Center of Kansas City, with a puppy. Photo courtesy of Michelle Rivera.

The third animal to have a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kansas was a cat with a medical emergency unrelated to the coronavirus. Because the cat’s owners had COVID-19, the cat was tested and was positive. Unfortunately, the cat passed away from a life-threatening medical condition unrelated to COVID-19, Garrison said.

Pets with COVID-19 could have symptoms like fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, lethargy, discharge from the eyes and nose, vomiting or diarrhea, Garrison said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all pets with confirmed COVID-19 only had mild symptoms and none have died.

Even though there aren’t many documented cases in animals, experts know that an animal caused the outbreak of COVID-19 and suspect that it originated from a bat. But scientists still don’t know the exact origin and say it could take years to find out.

The animals with the most COVID-19 spread are minks. Minks in farms across the world, in countries like the U.S, Denmark, Greece, France and Poland, have tested positive for COVID-19 after being introduced to the coronavirus by human workers. The CDC says there is a possibility that COVID-19 in mink can be spread back to humans or to cats and dogs, and that there is a higher risk of humans getting COVID-19 from minks than from other animals. Because of this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the CDC released a set of specific guidelines for mink farms to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Precautions pet owners should take if they test positive for COVID-19

Luckily, the overall risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to humans is low, according to the CDC.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture warns that all animals can carry germs, and people should wash their hands after touching pets or their food, waste or supplies. 

“If you think you have COVID-19 or have been told you are positive for COVID-19, you should keep separate from your pets just as you would other people in your home,” Garrison said.

The Department of Agriculture recommends having a family member or friend take care of your pet, or to at least avoid petting, cuddling or kissing your pet if you’re sick. If you need to take care of your pet while you have COVID-19, the Department of Agriculture says you should wear a mask and wash your hands before and after touching your pet.

If you think your pet might have COVID-19, Garrison recommends contacting your veterinarian right away and separating your pet from other pets and people.

Researchers from Kansas State University in November showed that domestic cats can carry COVID-19 without symptoms and can pass the virus to other cats within two days of infection. But studies looking at the spread of COVID-19 between dogs in lab settings suggest that it is less likely for dogs to pass the coronavirus to other dogs.

The CDC suggests limiting the interaction pets have outside the household, using the same guidelines recommended to humans during the pandemic. This includes avoiding public places, like dog parks, and keeping cats indoors. It warns not to put masks on pets and not to use chemical cleaners like hand sanitizer on them.

How COVID-19 was diagnosed in pets in Kansas

If veterinarians suspect that one of their patients has COVID-19, they consult with Garrison or the state veterinarian at the Kansas Department of Agriculture. 

When a pet is tested for COVID-19, the test is sent to the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory or a private lab. If the test result is positive, it also might be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, for confirmation.

The COVID-19 tests that are administered to animals are the same type of PCR tests that are used for humans, but they are created and processed separately.

“Although this is the same technology, the animal tests are for animals only and therefore not taking away from testing people,” Garrison said.

If a pet is diagnosed with COVID-19, there is no specific recommended treatment. Garrison said that a vet would treat the symptoms of an animal if needed and try to prevent a secondary bacterial infection.

Precautions veterinarians are taking against COVID-19

The Pet Resource Center of Kansas City, a high-volume spay-neuter and vaccine wellness clinic, used to have 70-100 pet owners waiting in its lobby at a time. Its spay-neuter services also used to be on a walk-in basis. Most of the changes the clinic has made since the start of the pandemic focus on human safety. 

The clinic changed its services to appointments only and stopped allowing customers in the building. It redid its parking lot four different times and added a booth for a parking attendant to help the flow of cars. It hired extra staff, including runners who go out and get pets from the parking lot when it is time for their appointments. It redesigned its building to add large windows to the front so that staff on the phone could see the people they are talking to.

Al O’Neill and Ben Olsen, veterinary assistants with the Pet Resource Center of Kansas City, with a dog. Photo courtesy of Michelle Rivera.

Nichols said she sees the clinic continuing its drop-off and pick-up practices after the pandemic is over.

“It’s not smooth having 30, 40 or 50 people in here with their dogs at a time,” Nichols said. “It’s kind of chaotic. It’s better for the dogs and people to kind of have their own space separation.”

The Pet Resource Center also started using a mobile vaccine unit for people who don’t feel comfortable leaving their houses during the pandemic. Signing up for appointments and communications with pet owners are done over the phone. Post-op care instructions are usually given through video tools.

“The changes that COVID had kind of forced us into are better for us and our clients,” Nichols said. “It’s been an opportunity in some way.”

While the clinic sees some sick pets, it so far hasn’t tested any for COVID-19.

“It’s rare for anybody,” Nichols said. “I don’t think most clinics, at least from what I hear from colleagues, are. They are testing a few times.”

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.