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Pets and COVID-19: What owners should know

(123rf)
(123rf)

A kitten became the first pet to be confirmed infected with the novel coronavirus in South Korea on Sunday.

The authorities tested three cats -- a mother and her two kittens -- at a prayer house in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, after both of their owners were diagnosed with the disease and had to be taken elsewhere for care.

The kitten is now at a pet hotel and being cared for by an animal protection agency, alongside its mother and littermate, an Agriculture Ministry official told The Korea Herald. The caretakers have to be in personal protective gear when in contact with the animals, which are being monitored for possible signs of illness.

The ministry official said the kitten had no symptoms at the time of diagnosis, and so far remains symptomless. In light of the recent case, the ministry is working with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency to devise guidelines on keeping pets safe from COVID-19.

Kim Jae-hong, the director general of the Korean Institute for Veterinary Healthcare Policy, said globally there have been several cases of owners infecting their pets, but not vice versa.

“Pets, too, have to be tested for COVID-19 when their owners are diagnosed. Owners who are home-isolating after coming into contact with a patient should be taking the same precautions as if they were contagious so as not to sicken their pets,” he said.

“If there is a chance you might be sick, avoid patting, hugging or kissing your pets. Wash your hands before feeding them and refrain from sharing food. Wear face masks if you can’t keep a safe distance,” he added.

When pets come down with COVID-19, they can show cold-like symptoms and possibly loss of appetite, diarrhea or other digestive symptoms, according to veterinary medicine professor Dr. Woo Hee-jong of Seoul National University.

“Fortunately, most of the pets known to have had COVID-19 had only mild illness. Like people, older and frail animals might be at higher risk of getting sicker,” he said.

The OIE, or the World Organization for Animal Health, says cats appear to be more susceptible to infection than dogs -- although further studies are needed to understand how the virus may affect different animals. Cats are more likely to spread the infection to other cats, but dogs less so. Both are capable of developing symptoms.

The organization said the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to have emerged from an animal source, likely a bat, and then spilled over to people. Such spillover events could pose a public health risk and influence surveillance and control measures.

“Susceptible animal populations in close contact with humans should be closely monitored. The virus introduction to a new animal species might accelerate its evolution,” the organization said.

Dr. Shin Hyoung-shik, the president of the Korean Society for Zoonoses, said, “Based on the limited information available, the risk of pets spreading COVID-19 to people is deemed to be low. The current pandemic is mainly being driven by person-to-person transmission.”

Animals are tested for COVID-19 with the same test kits as people using nasal swab or saliva specimens, according to laboratory medicine specialist Dr. Lee Hyuk-min.

Different municipalities including Gyeonggi Province, Ulsan and Gwangju offer pet care services for owners who test positive for COVID-19 so that their pets aren’t neglected while they are away for treatment. The costs vary but in Gyeonggi it’s 35,000 won ($31.69) a day per animal.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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