Coronavirus: Are your pets putting you at risk of catching COVID-19?

A Kiwi veterinarian is urging pet owners to be careful during the COVID-19 pandemic, with concerns cats and dogs could possibly transmit the virus.

Two dogs in Hong Kong tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, since the outbreak began earlier this year. And last week Belgian health officials said a cat contracted the disease from its owner, who caught the disease while on trip to northern Italy. 

The moggy showed symptoms similar to those found in humans according to virologist Steven Van Gucht, government spokesperson for the coronavirus epidemic.

"The cat had diarrhoea, kept vomiting and had breathing difficulties. The researchers found the virus in the cat's faeces," he said on Friday, the Brussell Times reported.

Neither of the dogs showed symptoms. One died, but the owner reportedly refused to let an autopsy take place to find out what killed it. 

Charly Quinn, a veterinary surgeon at Vetora, said it would be "quote a big deal" if it turns out cats and dogs can spread the disease. While humans - well, most of us - understand social distancing, our pets don't. 

"At the moment there is no evidence that cats and dogs can transmit the virus, but it doesn't rule them out acting as a carrier - the same way we can cough and sneeze into our hands and then spread it to someone else, it does follow then we could cough into our cat's coat and then the cat goes and someone else strokes it and picks it up," she told Magic Talk.

"But there's no need to get really anxious about that. It's really important that we don't go overboard with it and just maintain normal hygiene practises. If you let your dog kiss your face, it's probably a good time to stop that."

Quinn says it would be sensible to avoid patting and interacting with animals outside your household bubble, just like we're meant to avoid other people for the duration of the present lockdown.

The cat in Belgium recovered after nine days. 

It's believed SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans from pangolins and/or bats, sometime late last year in China. And it's suspected the virus attaches to a protein we have called ACE2 that's located on the outside of respiratory cells.

"The feline ACE2 protein resembles the human ACE2 [equivalent], which is most likely the cellular receptor which is being used by Sars-CoV-2 for cell entry," said Van Gucht.

But Quinn is sceptical. 

"There are a number of coronaviruses that infect humans and domestic pets. But there is little information about - especially that cat in Belgium - what the test was and how sensitive that is to determine what kind of coronavirus it was. So we have to be a little bit careful about fearmongering. There's absolutely no evidence of any cases in New Zealand."

What does the Ministry for Primary Industries say?

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has published advice on caring for pets and livestock during the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) pandemic.

"Currently, there is no evidence animals (pets or livestock) can spread COVID-19 (novel coronavirus)," it says on its site.

"International advice is that, as a precautionary measure, people sick with COVID-19 should avoid contact with pets and other animals, as they would with people.

"MPI's position is that currently there is no need for animals to be quarantined. This is based on international advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States and the World Organisation for Animal Health (the OIE).

"However, where there is COVID-19 in a household, we recommend animals are not moved off the property. You can also check for new updates on the CDC's website."