SINGAPORE: We know that the COVID-19 virus passed from an animal source to people in Wuhan, China, and is now spreading rapidly and globally with direct human-to-human transmission.

But two months after the first cluster of infections emerged, there is still a great deal we do not fully understand about the virus, including how contagious and deadly it is.

Scientists have not yet identified the original animal source of the outbreak, although the virus is genetically very similar to a coronavirus found in bats.

Recent reports that a dog in Hong Kong has tested repeatedly “weakly positive” for the COVID-19 virus suggests that the dog has a low-level of infection. Some experts have said this case could be one of human-to-animal transmission. However, there is no evidence at this time that pet dogs and cats could be a source of infection to other animals or to humans.

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However, as with any novel disease, the situation is rapidly evolving, making it difficult for governments and health authorities to give clear and consistent advice to the public, which can give rise to confusion, disruption and even pets being abandoned.

Animal rescue centres in China are also additionally overwhelmed by cases where pet owners fall sick or are caught in quarantines elsewhere after Chinese New Year and are unable to feed their pets.

The best approach in these circumstances is to reiterate the importance of basic personal hygiene and self-care, and many public health authorities have adopted this tactic.

Simple measures, such as washing hands thoroughly and covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, are fundamental to reducing the spread of any respiratory illness, including COVID-19.

A man wearing a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus enters a subway station in Milan, Italy, March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

When human and animal health are so intricately linked, the same basic health precautions should also be applied to our pets.

HOW COVID-19 IS PASSED TO ANIMALS IS STILL UNKNOWN

In the last few weeks, rapid progress had been made in identifying the cause of the disease, isolating the infectious viral agent and developing diagnostic tools.

We know that other mammals can contract and harbour coronaviruses that come from the same broad family as the COVID-19 virus.

In dogs and cats, for example, these are mostly commonly what scientists call “alpha-coronaviruses”. The cause of the current COVID-19 outbreak in people, however, belongs to a different group of viruses, the “beta-coronavirus” sub-family, which also includes SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

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However, there are still many important questions that remain to be answered.

It is not known whether COVID-19 will behave the same way as SARS and MERS, or whether it will cross species and infect other animals such as domestic pets.

THE BEST ADVICE? MAINTAIN PERSONAL HYGIENE

Until we have a better understanding of the current strain, good hygiene, biosecurity and secure environments – for both people and pets – are vital to minimise the spread.

This means keeping a close eye on pets, washing hands before and after interacting with them and, if sick, wearing a face mask around them.

Men wearing face masks sit on a bench with a cat underneath, at a park in Beijing, China following

Men wearing face masks sit on a bench with a cat underneath, at a park in Beijing, China following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

Pet owners should also avoid contact with animals they are unfamiliar with and always wash their hands before and after they interact with other animals.

If owners are sick with COVID-19, they should avoid contact with the animals in their household, including petting and sharing food.

And if a pet develops an unexplained illness and has been exposed to a person infected with COVID-19, owners should talk to the public health official working with the affected patient.

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EXISTING CANINE CORONAVIRUS VACCINES FOR PETS DO NOT TARGET RESPIRATORY INFECTIONS

A vital component of individual and community protection and the prevention of global disease spread – vaccination – is not yet available. And a vaccine, once developed, may take months if not years to pass through safety tests and regulatory approval.

In the flurry of information emerging around the ongoing outbreak, pet owners should remember that the existing canine coronavirus vaccine is not licensed nor effective for respiratory infections like COVID-19. 

It can be tempting, when new cases continue to rise and new countries become affected, to fear the worst and assume that drastic actions are necessary.

But until we properly understand this new virus, the best thing we can do is take good care of ourselves – and our pets.

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Dr Shane Ryan is the president of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and a veterinarian based in Singapore.

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