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Chimps and gorillas may catch COVID-19. Giant anteaters, bottlenose dolphins, horses, dogs, alligators, cats, sheep and Siberian tigers are also on the list of animals that may be able to catch and transmit the deadly pandemic coronavirus.
These are conclusions from the team at University of California Davis who conducted a genomic analysis of dozens of species with an eye toward classifying coronavirus transmission risks between animals and humans and protecting endangered species in zoos and the wild.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month, looks at the 25 genes that code for the proteins of the ACE2 receptor. This is the cell membrane receptor with which the coronavirus couples to launch its reproduction cycle and thus initiates the infection.
“We identified a large number of mammals that can potentially be infected by SARS-CoV-2 via their ACE2 proteins,” the study authors write. “This can assist the identification of intermediate hosts for SARS-CoV-2 and hence reduce the opportunity for a future outbreak of COVID-19.”
In other words, the more similar an animal’s ACE2 receptor proteins are to the human ACE2 proteins, the higher their infection risk.
Have There Been Animal Outbreaks of Coronavirus?
In April, as the waves of coronavirus were still crashing over New York City, a four-year-old Bronx Zoo tiger named Nadia tested positive and started coughing, a hallmark of the COVID-19 disease caused by the pandemic.
The news deflated morale in a public still shocked and confused by the abrupt social distancing and quarantine measures that shuttered the nation in March.
Not even the beloved big cats in zoos are safe? Is the world ending?
Today we know a lot more about the novel coronavirus, now in the ninth month of its global assault. All eight Bronx zoo cats are fine, according to the latest news from the zoo. The zoo itself reopened to visitors in late July.
News reports early in the pandemic are also peppered with cases of dogs and domestic cats contracting the virus. Some mink (ferret-like animals bred for their fur) contracted the virus on farms in Spain and Denmark, the CDC states. These seem to comprise most of the notable disease activity among animals observed so far.
In addition to finding potential disease reservoirs in susceptible species, the UC Davis scientists also hope their efforts might protect vulnerable endangered species, especially great apes which seem nearly as susceptible as humans, according to the study.
“Among the species we found with the highest risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection are wildlife and endangered species,” the study states. “These species represent an opportunity for spillover of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to other susceptible animals.”
This is important for people who work in national parks in Africa and who handle such animals at zoos and research institutions, but what does this mean for the rest of us?
Luckily, dogs may catch coronavirus, but it is quite rare. Domestic cats may contract the virus a little easier than dogs, but still not as easily as humans and great apes, according to the study. Chinese hamsters, a popular pet variety, are among more highly susceptible animals sequenced in the study.
Cattle and sheep also have a "medium" chance of catching coronavirus, while horses and pigs have a low risk, according to the study.
Many of these animals, if infected, will not succumb to the disease – many may show no symptoms. The real danger is if they serve as an intermediate host for the virus to travel onto other species, including humans and domestic animals, the study states.
Documenting this susceptibility will help identify and take measures to isolate reservoir species, according to the study.
How Do You Keep Your Pets Safe From COVID-19?
Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD., an emergency medicine specialist and microbiologist who writes for MedicineNet, stressed that animal outbreaks of COVID-19 are theoretical at this point. No major clusters of the disease among animal populations or contracted from domestic animals are documented.
“I’m not sure there’s been any major outbreaks due to animals as pets, even though the origin may have been bats,” Dr. Davis said, referring to the suspected host that was the crucible for the novel coronavirus’ 2019 mutational origin. “I’m not aware of any major outbreaks among animals.”
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious with your dogs and cats.
“Essentially, pets can get the disease” Dr. Davis said. “If you have the disease, you ought to make sure you keep away from them and wear a mask even when you’re at home. On the other hand, if you’re not sure, you can get yourself tested. Treat your pet as you would treat one of your friends; keep your hands washed and wear your mask around them if you are worried about transmitting the virus.”
Even though pets like housecats and hamsters don’t typically get exposed to outside pathogens, family members who are sickened or who are asymptomatic carriers of the disease can easily spread it to vulnerable indoor pets.
“It seems like the highest rate of transfer from person to person is inside a congested area with people,” Davis said, suggesting isolating your pets indoors could be counterproductive. “I’d be more concerned about the pet contracting the virus inside the home. Making sure your home is well ventilated is a good practice.”
Dogs can get infected, but might not spread the virus to other dogs easily, according to the CDC. Cats and ferrets, however, can easily spread the virus to other animals of the same species, the CDC states.
When you’re out for a walk with your dog, practice social distancing Dr. Davis suggests. We now know it’s a lot more difficult for dogs to contract the disease than humans, but why take the chance if you can keep your dog leashed and away from other dogs and people?
“There isn’t a lot of data on pet-to-pet transmission,” Dr. Davis said. “But if you practice social distancing, you and your pet will be better off.”