What is a Coronavirus and Can My Pet Get Infected?

By Melissa Brett, Guest Blogger

“What is a coronavirus?” you might be asking yourself. Maybe you’ve heard about it on the news recently, or someone was talking about it on social media. Coronaviruses are organisms that primarily affect the upper respiratory tract and can cause symptoms like a mild fever, runny nose, or cough. Some species of Coronaviruses, like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) have been known to be very pathogenic in humans meaning they can cause very serious illness and even death.

Did you know that animals are also susceptible to Coronaviruses? Household pets such as dogs and cats, but also wild birds, bats and rodents have been known to suffer from Coronavirus infection.

You may remember the 2003 SARS strain that caused panic in Asia and saw human cases imported to Toronto, Canada. It was later thought that the origin of the pathogen was either bats or palm civets from China. Disease experts are still trying to narrow down the origins of MERS and are looking closely at a link to camels and camel milk. Interestingly, most of the viruses that cause illness in humans have their origins in animals – we call these zoonotic diseases. Usually, the host animal (like the camels in the Middle East) will carry a particular pathogen, and it won’t cause any symptoms. Other zoonoses you’re likely familiar with are Ebola in fruit bats, Malaria in mosquitos, Toxoplasmosis in mice, Lyme disease in ticks, Plague in rodents, etc. These are all examples of zoonotic diseases which can be caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi.

Some Coronaviruses do cause illness in pets though, and it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out for unusual symptoms. Certain strains of the virus can cause similar symptoms that we would see in humans like a runny nose, or cough. In some cases, though, they may cause gastric symptoms such as vomiting or more serious symptoms like neurologic disturbances and liver disorders that are more difficult to treat. The strains that cause more severe illness are rare, and are usually reported in the news if they are found to be circulating locally.

Like humans, our pets need regular check-ups to maintain good health. Also, like humans, our pets may carry organisms in them that never cause them to become ill. Sometimes, like in the case of MERS, these organisms jump species into another animal or human host and cause moderate to severe infection.

The good news is that these diseases are tracked and monitored by organizations like the World Health Organization, Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). As responsible pet owners, it is our responsibility to do what we can to keep ourselves and our pets healthy with regular medical check-ups and monitoring for symptoms. Usually, a Coronavirus will make you or your dog miserable for a few days, but will go away on its own. Any unusual symptoms that last longer than a few days should be assessed by a veterinary professional.

About the Author: Melissa Brett is a Registered Nurse working in Infection Control in Ottawa, Canada. She is currently doing her Master’s in Global Health and Infectious Disease. A lover of animals – Siamese cats especially – she is a champion for animal and human preventative health.