Published: January 11, 2021

COVID-19 has affected plenty of pets and their owners. Some of the impacts are good—many dogs love their humans being home more. Of course, some of the effects are bad. Pets’ mental health can suffer, even if they and their owners never get the coronavirus. Animals pick up on their humans’ stress, and there is such a thing as too much togetherness.

Then there is the chance of illness or even death. Buddy, a German Shepherd who was the first pet in the United States to test positive for COVID-19, died in July 2020. It’s unclear whether COVID-19 or lymphoma caused his death. Some other pets who got COVID-19 have also died, with the cause of death remaining unclear.1

This guide discusses the (thankfully low) risk of COVID-19 transmission from owners to pets and vice versa, and what owners should do to keep their pets safe. It outlines your options for pet care if you become sick with COVID-19. It also offers tips for kenneling, dog walking, pet mental health, and other pet care issues during a global pandemic.

Table of Contents

  • Preventing Pets from Getting COVID-19
  • Making Decisions about Pet Care if You Get COVID-19
  • Promoting Pet Mental Health
  • Dog Walking, Kenneling, and Other Pet Care Considerations

Preventing Pets from Getting COVID-19

Some animal species, including dogs and cats, can become infected with COVID-19 after close contact with humans who have the virus. Sick animals can spread the virus to other animals or perhaps even people if the conditions are right.2 That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the number of infected pets has been minimal, and animals such as cattle and poultry don’t seem vulnerable to getting COVID-19. There’s also a tiny risk of human-animal transmission. In further bright news, the skin, fur, or hair of pets doesn’t transmit COVID-19. To keep Fluffy and Fido healthy, follow many of the same measures recommended for humans.

  • Walk dogs on a leash and keep them at least six feet away from other people and animals.
  • Skip dog parks, spaces, and gatherings with a high number of people.
  • Reduce or eliminate outdoor time for cats.

However, do not mask your pets. Masks could seriously harm them and cause breathing issues. Likewise, don’t wipe their skin, fur, or hair with disinfectant, alcohol sanitizer, or similar products.

Plan now for your pets’ care if you get sick with COVID-19. Pets who are in close, constant contact with infected humans are at higher risk of getting the virus. (More on pet care options in the next section.)

If your pet becomes sick and you suspect COVID-19, get in touch with your veterinarian. Government agencies generally do not recommend COVID-19 testing on pets, but it happens.

Making Decisions about Pet Care if You Get COVID-19

Your pet is most at risk of COVID-19 if you or others in the household get infected. Plan early to mitigate transmission dangers just in case someone in the house comes down with the virus. Don’t wait for a positive test result before setting pet care plans into motion.

  • Prepare a care kit with a month’s supply of your pet’s medication, two weeks of food, and other essentials should you become seriously ill and unable to care for your pet. Update your pet’s vaccinations now and make copies of these records. Microchip your pets and get them collars with contact information.
  • A healthy person in the household should care for pets, if possible. If you live alone, check with the vet’s office, friends, or relatives to see who can take your pet in, if necessary.
  • If you, while infected, must care for pets, wear a mask. Don’t mask the pets. Wash your hands before and after being around them.
  • People with the virus should cut out close contact with pets. That includes snuggling, sharing food, licking, kissing, and sleeping together.
  • Suppose your pet falls ill, whether with the virus or something else, while someone in the household has COVID-19. Contact the vet instead of bringing the pet in. A telemedicine appointment or other type of visit should be possible.
  • Follow the above precautions, even if you’re asymptomatic.

If your pet tests positive for COVID-19

The symptoms of COVID-19 in animals include coughing, difficulty breathing, lethargy, runny nose, eye discharge, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. Always call the vet’s office before dropping by. If a telehealth appointment is not feasible, staffers need to prepare the office for a potential virus patient to visit.3

Most animals who test positive don’t get very sick, but the vet will tell you what to do. Severely ill pets may need to stay at the vet’s office or go to an animal hospital.

Mildly ill or asymptomatic pets will probably go home and receive care there. Let your vet know right away if your pet develops breathing issues or if existing problems worsen.

Keep a COVID-19-positive pet isolated at home for the timeline your vet recommends. It’s likely when your pet has been symptom-free for at least 72 hours (without medications) and has gone 14 days since the positive test.

Isolation means no professional dog walking, parks, daycare, or groomer visits. If you have a back yard, use it to give your dog exercise and bathroom breaks. Otherwise, walk Fido close to home, and stay away from others. Sick cats should also stay inside, even if they’d much rather prowl outside.

  • Care for the animal in a designated “sick room,” such as a second bathroom or even the laundry room. If you have not had the virus and are in a high-risk group, see if another household member at lower risk can care for the pet.
  • Keep the pet away from other household members and pets—no shared toys, bedding, etc.
  • Use masks and gloves while caring for the pet.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces throughout the house.
  • Disinfect and launder pet toys, bedding, feeding bowls, and other items after isolation ends.

Your pet’s waste shouldn’t be any more dangerous than usual. Still, wear gloves, and place litterbox waste or fecal matter in disposable bags. Seal the bags well.

The Pets at Risk Could Include Dogs, Cats, Ferrets, and Hamsters

Scientists have infected ferrets, golden Syrian hamsters, cats, and fruit bats with COVID-19 in laboratory settings. However, ducks, chickens, pigs, and mice did not get infected.2 Bottom line: It’s best to be safe with all of your pets, including ferrets and hamsters.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks cases of the coronavirus in U.S. animals. When an animal tests positive at a state or private laboratory, the USDA confirms the result with further testing. Here are the numbers as of Nov. 27, 2020.4

In December 2020, three snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo tested positive.5 Their symptoms included dry coughs and wheezing. An asymptomatic staffer probably got them sick.

Close contact with infected humans has sickened seven animal species: dogs, cats, tigers, mink, lions, leopards, and a puma (in South Africa). In some cases, farmed mink have transmitted COVID-19 back to humans.6

Promoting Pet Mental Health

For the most part, pets have been great for humans’ mental health during COVID-19. Critters provide companionship and entertainment.7 They help us fight loneliness and even break the ice during Zoom calls. Dogs also force people to get outside and exercise.

That said, life during the pandemic has been stressful. Isolation, job loss, uncertainty, childcare woes, elder care issues, serious illness, death, and other triggers lurk everywhere. Pets can do only so much for us—and sometimes, they make our lives more stressful. For instance, they add to the financial bottom line and require attention. It’s not surprising if their mental health takes some blows, too.

  • Their routines changed.
  • They’re more isolated, too.
  • They’re able to sense our stress and may take our shifting emotions to heart.
  • Pets, especially cats, don’t necessarily want humans home all day. It isn’t always super-cool to receive tons of attention.
  • Humans may have new, confusing expectations of pets.

To expand on the last point, a dog may have always been welcome in his owner’s lap. Now, the owner gets upset when the dog wants to cuddle during a Zoom call (and the owner always seems to be on Zoom!). The kids are home a lot more, too, but they’re on the computer for school and won’t snuggle. No one wants to play, and the humans shout and scold a lot more. It is all very disorienting.

How Owners Can Help Their Pets’ Mental Health

First things first, owners gotta take care of themselves. Well-balanced owners make for happy pets. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to function at 100 percent, especially during COVID-19 times.

Still, try a few steps to boost your mental health and, by consequence, your pet’s. Too much togetherness could be an issue. Time apart provides space and helps you, your family members, and pets appreciate one another more.

Reducing Too Much Togetherness

  • Take “me” time and set boundaries around it. This time is just for you—no kids, spouses, pets, or others barging into whatever you’re doing.
  • Establish as much of a routine as you can. Any degree of predictability does wonders, both for humans and animals. For instance, you can wake up, take breaks, and walk at the same time every day.
  • Get out of the house at least once a day. Drive around, walk, or read a book outside.
  • Give your pets alone time. It’s perfectly OK to close the door to your office or bedroom while you work or sleep. If your pets are used to being crated, keep crating them.
  • Feed, exercise, or water your pets before a big business meeting or project—less chance of interruptions.

Other pet mental health tips include these:

  • Follow your pets’ lead. Some dogs are totally up for four walks a day, while one walk suffices for others. If your pet doesn’t seem excited to walk or can’t keep up, go by yourself.
  • Chat with your pet about problems to see if it releases stress. Even hermit crabs or, heck, houseplants, are great listeners. Don’t keep your issues all bottled up.
  • Research the true costs of pet ownership if you’re adopting for the first time. Do you have enough money saved to tide you and the pet over if, say, your hours at work get cut? If the finances are not there, contact local shelters to ask about fostering. Many shelters and agencies cover at least some foster family expenses. There can be tax advantages to fostering, too. Ask if the agency is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

If You Are Rarely Home

Many folks work medical, retail, or other essential jobs. They can’t be home much. Some tips:

  • Arrange walks or other forms of exercise for dogs. If a professional dog walker is too expensive, see if neighbors can help for a reduced cost or barter trade.
  • Ask friends or pet sitters to play with your pets or just hang out with them.
  • Adopt a new pet (or several) to keep your existing pets company. Of course, introducing a new pet can be dicey, so use your judgment.
  • See if anyone can take your pet in temporarily. Discuss financial contributions and timelines before the move, so everyone is on the same page.
  • Install pet doors so dogs can do their business anytime and get fresh air.
  • Chat or even video chat with your pets through cameras and monitors. Keep an eye on walkers and sitters and see what the pets are up to generally.
  • Automate feeding, watering, and cleaning litterboxes. Give your pet quality attention with the time savings.

Dog Walking, Kenneling, and Other Considerations

Dog walking, kenneling, play dates, and dog parks pose varying degrees of risk when it comes to COVID-19.

Dog Walking

Dog walking during COVID-19 is pretty safe. The most significant precaution is to limit your exposure to other humans.9

  • Maintain social distancing while walking. If you work as a dog walker or walk dogs from multiple households, wear masks and stay at least six feet apart when conversing with people.
  • Limit the time you spend inside clients’ homes (or neighbors’ homes).
  • Walk uncrowded routes when possible.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands frequently, including before and after handling dogs.
  • Skip walks if you or anyone in the household is sick with COVID-19 symptoms. Ditto if the owners of other dogs you walk get sick.

If you walk dogs for essential-worker neighbors (or are an essential worker yourself), consider walking when fewer people are around. This limits the overall risk you and the pets pose to others.

Check out various states’ guidance for pet walking businesses to get more ideas. Washington state urges contactless handoffs and regular disinfection of frequently touched objects, among other things.

Kenneling

There’s always a risk of kennel cough, cat flu, and other illnesses if you kennel your pet or send it to daycare. There’s a small chance of COVID-19, too.

Do avoid kenneling your animals during the pandemic unless you have no choice. Otherwise, compare the available facilities. Ask relatives and friends about the experiences they’ve had. Pennsylvania encourages dog care facilities to:

  • Limit the number of people inside
  • Maintain social distancing minimums of six feet apart
  • Have employees stagger breaks and lunchtimes
  • Require that sick employees stay home9

Look for facilities that aren’t crowded—that have barely anyone inside. Research facilities’ COVID-19 protocols and check that staffers wear masks. Ask how often the animals are exercised and whether any illnesses are occurring within the animal population there.

Dog Parks and Play Dates with Other Dogs

Letting your dog play with other dogs can be great for the canines’ mental health. That said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend dog parks due to the possibility of virus transmission. The CDC does outline steps to mitigate the risks at dog parks.10

  • Follow social distancing protocols.
  • Don’t touch water bowls, tennis balls, and other commonly shared items.
  • Sanitize your hands if you do touch these items.
  • Disinfect items you take from home to the dog park.
  • Avoid letting your dog socialize with people outside of the household.

The best way to keep your pet safe is not to get COVID-19 yourself. Take your dog to the park during the least-crowded times, if possible. The fewer people around, the fewer transmission risks.

As for doggy play dates, keep up the social distancing. Stay outside. Wear masks, especially if indoor socialization does happen. Don’t set up a play date or take your dog to the park if:

  • You have been exposed to COVID-19.
  • Your dog is sick, whether with the virus or another illness.
  • COVID-19 spread in your area is high or at a level you’re not comfortable with.

Adopting from Shelters

The FDA says it’s OK to adopt pets from shelters. It’s extremely unlikely your new pet will come home with the virus.11

Pet Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The pandemic has changed pet care in many ways. We may be home with our critters a lot more—or a lot less. Our regular routines might be chucked out the window, but it’s essential to create new ones for mental health reasons. Give your animals attention and exercise them, but don’t force too much togetherness. Try to be extra patient with them. Their world changed overnight too, but they don’t have as much capacity as us to understand why.

Additional Resources

  • The Humane Society: Find out about pet preparedness plans and organizations that help people financially with pet support.
  • The Humane Society: Resources for domestic violence victims and their pets, shelter tool kits, and more.
  • CDC: Transmission risks, pet safety, and staying healthy
  • CDC: Guidance for handlers of service and therapy animals

References and Footnotes

  1. First U.S. Dog With COVID-19 Has Died. (2020, July 31). WebMD. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20200731/first-us-dog-with-covid-19-has-died
  2. COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions: Animals, Pets and Animal Drug Products. (Current as of Dec. 13, 2020). FDA. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/covid-19-frequently-asked-questions#animals
  3. What to Do if Your Pet Tests Positive for the Virus that Causes COVID-19. (Last updated Sept. 10, 2020). CDC. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/positive-pet.html
  4. Cases of SARS-CoV-2 in Animals in the United States. (2020, Nov. 19). USDA PDF. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/one_health/downloads/sars-cov2-in-animals.pdf (parent link: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/sa_one_health/sars-cov-2-animals-us)
  5. Andrew, Scottie. (2020, Dec. 11). Three Snow Leopards Test Positive for Coronavirus, Making It the Sixth Confirmed Animal Species. CNN. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/11/us/snow-leopard-positive-coronavirus-kentucky-zoo-trnd/index.html
  6. Questions and Answers on COVID-19. (Last updated Nov. 27, 2020). World Organisation for Animal Health. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.oie.int/en/scientific-expertise/specific-information-and-recommendations/questions-and-answers-on-2019novel-coronavirus/
  7. Herzog, Hal. (2020, Oct. 13). Do Pets Improve Mental Health During COVID Lockdowns? Psychology Today. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animals-and-us/202010/do-pets-improve-mental-health-during-covid-lockdowns
  8. Gollakner, Rania, and Barnette, Catherine. (n.d.). Tips for Dog Walkers During the COVID-19 Pandemic. VCA Hospitals. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/tips-for-dog-walkers-during-the-covid-19-pandemic
  9. COVID-19 GUIDANCE: Essential Businesses for Boarding Kennels, Doggie Daycares, Animal Shelters, Sanctuaries, and Rescues. (2020, April 2). Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture PDF. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.agriculture.pa.gov/Documents/Guidance%20for%20Kennels,%20Shelters,%20Rescues.pdf
  10. Frequently Asked Questions: Pets and Animals. (Updated Dec. 11, 2020). CDC. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html#Pets-and-Animals
  11. Helpful Questions and Answers about Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Your Pets. (Current as of Aug. 31, 2020). FDA. Retrieved on December 16, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/helpful-questions-and-answers-about-coronavirus-covid-19-and-your-pets