Fact check: Pets will not spread the coronavirus to their owners

The claim: Pets don't spread the coronavirus 

Several Facebook posts have circulated in recent days claiming that pet owners are dropping off their pets at shelters in fear the animals could spread the coronavirus. 

One post from a Facebook page called "Santa Paws Little Helper" had more than 265,000 shares as of March 23. It has since been taken down. 

“Pets carry no threat and do not spread the virus,” the post said. "Fake news is causing stupid people to drop off pets at shelters."

In the post's comment section, the page pointed to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control as saying there is no known reason to believe that pets can spread COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, in the United States.

A message to the Facebook page seeking more information was not returned.

Another post, shared by several social media accounts including Lifebridge for Animals, a nonprofit animal advocacy organization in Kentucky, offers similar claims. 

"You cannot, I repeat you CANNOT get coronavirus from your pets," the post shared by Lifebridge said. "People are dumping their animals at shelters out of ignorance and fear." 

Lifebridge director Jeanie Petrik told USA TODAY that she has seen guidance from medical professionals she trusts, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, that backs up the claim. 

►More: How to keep your pets safe and happy during the coronavirus pandemic

Woman petting dog

What experts know about coronavirus in pets

This novel coronavirus belongs to a family of viruses, some of which cause illness in people and some of which affect certain types of animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers have linked the novel coronavirus' origin to a live animal market in Wuhan, China. It's believed to have animal origins, possibly in bats. But the CDC's website states there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the virus. 

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, two dogs have so far tested positive for the virus, both in Hong Kong, as well as two cats, one in Hong Kong and another in Belgium. The pets all lived with people diagnosed with the coronavirus.  

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, the canines became infected following "close exposure" to owners sick with the disease. But the organization reports there is no evidence yet that dogs have shown any clinical signs of the virus, or that they have played a role in its spread. Further studies are underway. 

On April 5, the United States Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Services Laboratories confirmed the virus in a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York. The test came after several lions and tigers at the zoo showed signs of respiratory illness starting March 27, according to a news release. The USDA in the release said public health officials believe the big cats were exposed to a zoo employee who had the virus. 

On April 22, two cats living in different areas of New York also tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the USDA, marking the first time a pet has had a confirmed case in the U.S. The two cats had "mild respiratory symptoms and are expected to make a full recovery," the USDA said in a news release. 

According to the USDA, no one in the first cat's home had a confirmed case of COVID-19, meaning the cat could have received the virus from asymptomatic members of the household or from contact with someone outside the household. 

The second cat's owner did test positive for COVID-19 before the cat began showing signs, according to the USDA. A second cat in the same home had not yet shown any signs of infection. 

The CDC's website also states there needs to be further examination about whether animals could be affected by the virus. 

But the USDA agrees with the CDC that there is "no evidence" that animals such as pets or livestock can spread the infection to humans. 

Coronavirus outbreak: Pet owners seek face masks for dogs

The AVMA's website further says that while new research articles have shown some preliminary results that some animals can be infected and transmit the virus to other animals within an experimental setting, those results shouldn't be overinterpreted. 

"Currently, we have no information that suggests that pets might be a source of infection for people with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19," the website says.

Health experts have not completely ruled out the possibility of animals' bodies serving as "fomites," or surfaces that virus particles can land on and be transmitted by touch – for example, if someone sneezed on their pet's fur and another person immediately touched the same spot. But porous and fibrous surfaces like pet fur are less likely to transmit the virus than hard surfaces, according to the AVMA. 

Preston Moore, Iowa state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said his organization is recommending, as a precaution, that pets receive a bath when they're sent home from an animal shelter. 

"Soft surfaces (such as fur) don’t transfer the viruses as well as hard surfaces like stainless steel or plastic, so animals are less likely to act as fomites," he said in an email. 

Because pets also can carry other germs that sicken people, the CDC and AVMA do recommend cleaning up after pets, washing hands after handling animals and taking pets to the veterinarian regularly. Also, experts recommend keeping pets away from those sick with coronavirus as a precaution. 

Are shelters seeing an influx of pets because owners are afraid they'll spread the virus? 

Moore said it's "too early to tell" whether there has been an overall increase or decrease in animal surrenders due to the virus. Other animal groups agree there is not yet a widespread proof of animal shelters inundated with pet drop-offs.

Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the group's adoption center in New York City, the place that has so far been hit the hardest by the virus, has so far not seen an increase in stray intakes or in owners bringing in pets for virus-related reasons. 

"Based on our conversations with animal welfare professionals across the country, that trend is not evident on a national level," he said in an email. 

In Washington, the first state to report a case of coronavirus back in January, a spokesperson with Seattle's joint information center said in an email the city is "not aware of owner concerns regarding pets catching the virus."

The city has not reported a significant increase of animals being dropped off, although nearly 50% fewer pets have been adopted so far this month. The city is preparing for an influx as the outbreak continues.

Hess said the AVMA has heard from some shelter partners that more people are bringing in pets, but he would caution against people relinquishing their animals for fear of receiving the virus.  

AVMA spokesman Michael San Filippo said financial concerns could also play a role in owners dropping off pets. But he said some shelters have also seen an increase in adoptions and foster families, as people seek out pets to keep them company as they stay at home.

Sheryl Haga, executive director at the Yakima Humane Society in Washington, said the agency has seen an increase in adoptions rather than drop-offs. But she said she worries about the potential for an influx in pet drop-offs as employers lay off workers. While some of those people might bring in pets if they couldn't afford to take care of them, others may simply release them out onto the street, she said. 

Hess said pet owners should enjoy their animals rather than worry about them catching or spreading the virus, pointing to how animals can be a comfort to those under stress.   

"Animals are not part of the problem during this COVID emergency, but they might be part of the solution," he said.

Our ruling: True

Despite more than 450,000 reported cases around the world, veterinary experts say they have no evidence yet the coronavirus can spread from an infected pet to a human.

It may be feasible that an animal's fur could transmit the virus, but experts agree pet fur is less conducive to that form of transmission from hard surfaces. There has been no sign that such transmission has occurred, according to the CDC. 

While the initial claim is true, multiple animal organizations say they're unaware of a widespread trend in owners surrendering their animals at shelters in fear they can spread the virus. 

Our fact-check sources:

Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at irichardson@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.

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