Developments Regarding COVID-19 and Animals

by John M. Simpson.

Recent reports of a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus at that causes the human illness known as COVID-19, have focused attention on the effects that the current pandemic may have upon animals.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) – the federal agency responsible for administering the federal Animal Welfare Act with respect to animals held by exhibitors such as zoos – this positive test of SARS-CoV-2 was the first for an animal in the United States.  Several large cats at the zoo had developed symptoms, but one tiger was administered the test for the virus.  APHIS has suggested that the virus may have been spread to the animals by an animal care employee who was asymptomatic.  APHIS indicated that all of the animals are expected to recover.

In a series of questions and answers accompanying its press release on the subject, APHIS stated that there was no evidence that, if pets or livestock were to contract the virus, they can pass it on to humans.  The situation is evolving and will continue to be monitored by APHIS and state and local health agencies, but, at this time, APHIS was not recommending the routine testing of zoo animals or personnel.  Until more is known about the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus between humans and animals, APHIS recommends that a person who is ill with COVID-19 restrict their contact with animals.

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) has noted that, while some isolated examples of infected companion animals had been reported, the current spread of COVID-19 is a result of human to human transmission.  According to OIE, to date, “there is no evidence that companion animals play a significant a role in spreading the disease. Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare.”

Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has observed that, while it is aware of a small number of cases outside the U.S. of pets being infected with the novel virus after close contact with humans who were ill with COVID-19, CDC has no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease to people or that companion animals might be a source of infection in the U.S.  CDC also has stated that is has no evidence that imported animals or animal products pose a risk for spreading the novel virus in the U.S.  However, as does APHIS, CDC recommends that an individual who is ill with COVID-19 limit their contact with animals.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) likewise has stated that there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19.  AVMA has developed recommendations regarding companion animals in households where humans with COVID-19 are present.  AVMA offers three reasons why it believes it is desirable, where possible, to keep companion animals together with their owners:

“First, previous disasters have demonstrated that companion animals are integral family members and people will place themselves at significant risk rather than be separated from their companion animals. Compliance with recommendations, including disclosure of symptoms or exposure to an infected person, may be compromised if people believe they may be separated from their companion animals when isolated or quarantined.

Second, companion animals have a beneficial impact on human health, providing companionship and reducing anxiety. Isolation and quarantine can be extremely stressful situations that might cause uncertainty, fear, or anger. Some stress can be reduced by keeping families together, including a family’s companion animals. It is important to maintain the health and welfare of both people and their companion animals during a public health emergency.

Third, animal shelters could quickly become overwhelmed by companion animals being relinquished or in need of emergency shelter unless they limit their services to those who truly cannot care for their companion animals. Bringing in large numbers of companion animals would stretch capacity and resources to the point where adequate care could no longer be ensured. This could compromise care and welfare for companion animals who can no longer be cared for by their owner and have no other option than to be admitted into the shelter.”

Given the daily evolving aspect of the COVID-19 crisis and the many ways in which normal life has been affected, the human-animal relationship is probably not going to be an exception.