I had mixed emotions when I first learned about a COVID-19 test for pets.
All sorts of thoughts went through my head, such as:
- Do pets even need to be tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus?
- Are we talking about mass pet screening?
- Does this mean that pets do pose a risk to people?
- Won’t this divert resources from human testing?
- What happens if a pet tests positive?
This article attempts to answer these questions and others, to hopefully set some of these worries to rest.
10 Facts to Know About the COVID-19 Test for Pets
1. Yes, it is now possible for veterinarians to test certain pets for COVID-19.
On April 20, Idexx Laboratories announced the availability of a COVID-19 test for pets. The Idexx SARS-CoV-2 RealPCR™ is a swab test, run on samples taken from the pet’s mouth, nose or rectum.
But just because something is possible doesn’t mean we should be using it … or does it?
To decide, this let’s look at the big picture and what’s currently known about COVID-19 infection.
2. There is no need for mass testing of pets for the coronavirus.
Experts agree that the virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily passed from person to person (rather than animal to human).
Indeed, the lab that makes the test even provides evidence to confirm just how rare infection is in animals. During the development of the test, Idexx says it reviewed samples sent in from 5,000 pets with respiratory symptoms — every one of which tested negative for COVID-19.
“This suggests dogs and cats living with infected people generally remain uninfected, except in rare and isolated cases,” Idexx explains.
Also note that veterinarians are not reporting an upswing in pets with respiratory signs. With around 135 million cats and dogs in the United States, if pets catching COVID-19 were a thing, by now vets would be inundated with cases.
With this in mind, it is unlikely pets will ever need to be tested wholesale. (Phew! Some good news here at least.) Given everything written above, no, vets are not looking at the mass testing of pets.
Testing is reserved for specific pets in circumstances where there is a strong suspicion of infection. “Consultation with a local health authority prior to considering testing for COVID-19 in a pet is recommended,” says Idexx. “Testing should be limited to those animals with known or strongly suspected COVID-19 exposure.”
3. There are strict criteria for getting a COVID-19 test for your pet.
Vets in practice are not encouraged to tests pets for COVID-19 unless specific criteria are met. Even then, they are asked to pass the request through a state health official or veterinarian for a case consultation.
The 3 criteria for testing are:
- The pet lives with a person who has COVID-19 or has tested positive.
- The pet has clinical signs consistent with COVID-19.
- The vet has tested for and ruled out common infections that cause respiratory symptoms in pets.
4. Here’s what COVID-19 testing in pets is NOT …
The test is:
- Not to be used as the first step in diagnosing illness in sick pets.
- Not to be used for general screening of pets.
- Not available unless the 3 criteria above have been met.
5. The COVID-19 test for pets does not work for people.
Just in case anyone was thinking this was a backdoor method of obtaining a human test, think again. The Idexx COVID-19 test for pets is not the same as the human test.
Although the pet test looks at the same gene as the human tests used by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it has been specifically designed to avoid cross-reactivity with the human species. Long story short, the pet test gives unreliable results for human samples.
But where does this leave us in terms of diverting resources from human testing?
6. Pet vs. human testing: Is there a conflict of interest?
We are advised that the pet test will have no impact on human testing. The main reason given is the reference laboratories capable of running the pet-COVID test are not licensed to run human samples.
The pet tests are sent to veterinary diagnostic laboratories that are not legally allowed to carry out human tests.
So far so good. But to my mind, there are questions to be answered about the availability of chemical reagents, which are the ingredients needed to manufacture the tests.
In the United Kingdom, at least, there has been a reported shortage of the reagents for the human tests.
This has been an ongoing problem in the United States as well. “While testing has improved significantly since the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., it is still not where it needs to be,” an investigation by The Hill has found. “Shortages of swabs, reagents or chemicals used to process tests, pipettes and other goods have threatened progress.”
Even more alarming, the Association of American Medical Colleges has said that “not one of these components is readily available in sufficient quantities to each and every lab that needs them.”
To my mind, it’s common sense that there has to be overlap in the reagents used to make both the pet and human tests. If these reagents are in plentiful supply, then great … but if not, then human medicine must have priority.
7. Your pet should be practicing social distancing, too.
Pets who have tested positive for COVID-19 are very rare cases.
Again, the evidence points to pets having caught the infection from their human caretakers. This means the person living in close contact with them is (hopefully) practicing social distancing right now anyway. Thus, COVID-19 positive pets should be isolated as a sensible precaution against infecting other animals and people … just in case.
In fact, public health officials in the U.S. are now advising that, regardless of testing status, all pets (like humans) should practice a form of social distancing.
“Until we learn more about how this virus affects animals, treat pets as you would other human family members to protect them from a possible infection,” says the CDC.
The CDC advises doing the following:
- Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
- Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
- Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals.
- Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
8. Wash your hands before and after petting your dog or cat.
“Coughs and sneezes spread diseases” … but what about spreading disease on pet fur?
The COVID-19 test for pets tells us if the dog or cat is infected with the coronavirus. But could a pet test negative and still transmit infection another way — say, via virus particles on their coat?
Let’s say an infected person sneezes on their pet. Experts tell us that the virus survives best on hard, smooth surfaces rather than soft, porous ones. So, a doorknob (hard and smooth) is likely to spread infection, but pet fur (soft and porous) carries a much lower risk.
Even so, it’s always best to wash your hands after stroking a pet — regardless of the COVID situation.
“Animal owners without symptoms of COVID-19 should continue to practice good hygiene during interactions with animals. This includes washing hands before and after such interactions and when handling animal food, waste or supplies,” says the American Veterinary Medical Association. And “until more is known about the virus, those ill with COVID-19 should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people.”
9. Advice is subject to change over time.
As time passes, more becomes known about COVID-19. Scientists continue to test pets for a virus that was unknown just a few months ago. This data may show trends that surprise us.
Indeed, so far it appears that cats and ferrets may be more susceptible than dogs to infection. Only time will tell what this means going forward.
However, having the COVID-19 test for pets now means the potential to test companion animals should it become necessary.
Here’s more on how to protect your pets from COVID-19:
10. There is no need to panic about your pets during the pandemic.
To summarize this article:
- The Idexx SARS-CoV-2 RealPCR™ is a useful tool, should it ever be needed.
- There is no need for mass testing of pets.
- And because veterinarians’ use of these tests is highly specific and limited to a very few cases, it shouldn’t divert precious resources from our human colleagues.
So, all in all, the COVID-19 test for pets is a good thing and places us in a position of readiness, should a hitherto unseen risk from pets present itself.
But it’s important to emphasize that people pose a greater risk to pets than the other way around. So keep calm and carry on cherishing your pet. It is their companionship, constant loyalty and love that will get you through this crisis in the end.
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- Hellmann, Jessie. “Lack of Testing Supplies an Obstacle to Reopening Economy, Officials Say.” The Hill. April 15, 2020. https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/493008-lack-of-testing-supplies-an-obstacle-to-reopening-economy-officials-say.
- Shorten, David J., MD. “Letter to the Honorable Deborah Birx, MD” Association of American Medical Colleges. April 13, 2020. https://www.aamc.org/system/files/2020-04/ocomm-ogr-skorton-letter-diagnostic-testing.pdf.
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- Aubrey, Allison. “The New Coronavirus Can Live on Surfaces for 2-3 Days — Here’s How to Clean Them.” NPR. March 14, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/14/811609026/the-new-coronavirus-can-live-on-surfaces-for-2-3-days-heres-how-to-clean-them.
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