Many species are susceptible to infection because they contain a protein known as angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2.
That’s because the virus itself is covered in spiky projections that can to latch onto ACE2 proteins on the surface of animal cells. The coronavirus “spikes” then lock into place and hijack the cell to replicate.
Using computer databases and modeling, researchers have examined the genes of species to find out if the ACE2 protein in their cells can be used by SARS-CoV-2. A recent study, published in the journal Microbes and Infection on March 19, showed SARS-CoV-2 could grab onto the ACE2 receptor of many different species — including bats, civet cats and pigs — and predicted it may also be able to do so in goats, sheep, horse, pangolins, lynx and pigeons.
The research undertaken by the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in China suggests that the virus replicates poorly in chickens, ducks and pigs.
The first confirmed case of coronavirus in an animal in the US was documented on April 5, when 4-year-old Nadia, a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo, was found to have contracted the virus, likely from an infected but asymptomatic zookeeper.
Can I get COVID-19 from my pet?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about transmission of SARS-CoV-2, but the most important point to reiterate: There is a lack of evidence the coronavirus is spread by pets and companion animals to humans.
“There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that companion animals play any role in the epidemiology of this disease,” said Trevor Drew, director of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory. Drew and his colleagues at the AAHL are testing vaccines in ferrets in pre-clinical trials to assess safety and efficacy of new treatments. Ferrets are used in the trial because they are particularly susceptible to infection by the coronavirus. However, even ferret owners are unlikely to get the disease from their furry friends according to Drew.
He notes that the researchers at the AAHL are not seeing “overt clinical disease” in their ferrets, but “they do seem to have a slight temperature and they do replicate the virus.” It may be that SARS-CoV-2 can infect these animals, but cannot replicate enough to cause the set of symptoms which define human COVID-19.
You may also be wondering if you can pick it up from your pet’s fur? The risk is low — but not zero — because the coronavirus can survive on surfaces and is able to be transmitted via droplets. Theoretically, it might persist on fur, so you should always wash your hands before and after you interact with them if you’re feeling unwell.
“People appear to pose more risk to their pets than they do to us,” said Glenn Browning, a veterinary microbiologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
How can I protect my pets?
If you are feeling unwell and believe you may have contracted COVID-19, the first thing you should do is get tested. If you suspect you are unwell, the recommendation from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is to “restrict contact with pets and other animals, just like you would around other people.”
The best method of protection remains prevention. There are a huge number of resources available from the WHO on reducing your risk of infection, and the key measures are outlined below:
Wash your hands: For 20 seconds and no less! You can get some handy handwashing tips here.
Maintain social distancing: Try to keep at least 3 feet (1 meter) away from anyone coughing or sneezing.
Avoid touching your face, eyes or mouth: A difficult task, but this is how the virus initially gets into the body.
Respiratory hygiene measures: Cough and sneeze into your elbow!
If you are sick, you may consider quarantining your pets at home and limiting your contact with them as much as possible. You don’t have to isolate them, but try to limit them to one or two rooms in the home, wear a mask when around them and — yes, we’re saying it again — wash your hands.