March 15, 2020 by Stephanie Lamb, DVM, DABVP (Avian Practice)
UPDATE, March 19, 2020: Since this article first published, the Pomeranian dog mentioned in it has died of unknown causes, although it is not likely coronavirus. See Forbes for more information.
It’s all over the news. The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading and affecting lives everywhere. However, it’s not only causing illness, it’s causing confusion and fear. It is an emerging disease, so there is still a lot we don’t know or understand. This uncertainty can be perplexing. It even has pet owners questioning how this could affect their companions. Although there is still a lot to discover about how this virus will act, that doesn’t mean we should be fearful for our pets. Rather, there are things people can do to keep their pets safe and healthy.
Knowledge Is Power
The first place to start is by focusing on what we do know about the disease. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus. Viruses are microscopic agents that contain genetic material. They get inside the cells of other organisms and essentially hijack the cells’ operating system in order to replicate more of themselves. The new little viruses then leave the cell and move on to another one to repeat the cycle. Viruses infect all sorts of life, including animals, plants, and even bacteria. Some viruses are very benign to the host cell they take over. Others viruses can cause severe damage and death to the cell and the larger host organism.
Coronaviruses are a group of well-known viruses that have been studied for years. They consist of many different types and have been identified in humans, cats, dogs, pigs, and birds. Bird species found to have coronavirus include pigeons, pheasants, chickens, and turkeys. Typically, coronaviruses are problematic in young animals but mild or asymptomatic in adults. The virus mostly is found in respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, causing problems in these organ systems. Coronaviruses are generally species-specific and infect only one group of animals. For example, coronavirus that infects chickens usually won’t cause problems for humans.
How COVID-19 Likely Developed
COVID-19 is new though, so how did it develop? One of the interesting things about viruses is that they mutate. This means that their genetic material can change accidentally as the virus replicates in a host cell. These changes can make it so the virus can now infect a new host. Or it can make it so that the virus is now more virulent — stronger and able to cause more damage. Research is showing that COVID-19 is likely to have jumped from bats to humans in a live animal and seafood market in China. It then spread from human to human, likely through respiratory secretions like saliva and mucous when people cough and sneeze.
Is COVID-19 A Danger To Pets?
The question pet owners have on their minds is if the virus could pass from people to their companion animals. The risk of this occurring seemed to be low. However, at the end of February, a Pomeranian owned by a person who was sick with COVID-19 was found to test weakly positive for the virus. The dog was rechecked and continued to test positive for the RNA of the virus. The dog remains free of symptoms though and is negative for antibodies to the virus. This means that its immune system, as of yet, has not recognized or reacted to the virus. The dog is still under quarantine and being monitored.*
Testing by one of the large veterinary laboratories has, so far, found no positive dogs or cats in samples they have analyzed. Testing is still ongoing, so things could change regarding what we know about how COVID-19 affects pets. At this time, COVID-19 appears to be a low risk of disease transmission to pets.
Are Pet Birds At Risk?
When it comes to pet birds, at this time, there is no evidence to support that it could transfer to them. Given that birds and mammals are two largely different groups and the virus is not even transferring well between mammal species at this time, it is unlikely to be a problem for birds. As previously mentioned, coronaviruses are usually species-specific. This makes it more likely that the virus cannot spread from humans to pet birds.
Recommendations From The AVMA
Although the likelihood of transmission is low it never hurts to be cautious, and times like these remind us about the importance of biosecurity. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that people infected with COVID-19 have limited contact with their pets and allow others to care for them until we better understand the virus. The AVMA also recommends against kissing, hugging, and sharing food with pets. This prevents respiratory secretions of infected people being spread to animals.
What Should Pet Bird Owners Do?
Previous viral outbreaks in birds have taught people how to practice good biosecurity. The following are ways pet owners can implement biosecurity in their homes.
Quarantine: Any sick humans in the home should have limited contact with their pet birds until they are healthy again. Likewise, any sick birds should be isolated from healthy individuals. Any new birds coming into a home should have a 30-day minimum period where they are not around other birds in the house. This recommendation is not specific to COVID-19 and is a good rule to live by to minimize the risk of all infectious diseases.
Hand Washing: Make sure to wash your hands before and after handling and interacting with your bird and their accessories, such as their cage items or food. We can easily spread bacteria, viruses, and other infectious agents on our hands without knowing it. Simply washing your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds can go a long way to preventing problems.
Monitor for illness and seek professional care when necessary: If you notice your bird is not feeling well, have him or her checked out by a veterinarian skilled in avian care. Even the smallest of changes in their behavior can sometimes be an indication something is wrong. Don’t wait until they are really acting ill. If you yourself are ill with COVID-19, ask a friend to bring your bird to the vet for you.
Cleaning and Disinfecting: Make sure to clean surfaces, cages, and items that have been soiled or have come in contact with biologic items (i.e., feces, respiratory secretions). Many common disinfectants have been shown to be effective against coronaviruses. The CDC lists numerous disinfectants that are useful, including bleach, hydrogen peroxide, and quaternary ammoniums. Read product labels and instructions in order to use them correctly. Bleach and hydrogen peroxide are safe for use around birds, but note that all animals must be kept away from the fumes of products while in use.
During times of uncertainty, whether it’s a natural disaster, an economic crisis, or a disease outbreak, it’s good for pet owners to be prepared for both their needs and their birds’ needs. Have stocks of emergency supplies on hand, and at least a two week’s supply of food for all pets. For birds on medications, have at least two week’s medication available, if not more. Have an emergency pet first-aid kit available that includes items like antiseptic cleansing agent, bandaging material, styptic powder, and copies of health records.
In conclusion, COVID-19 may be a pandemic but that doesn’t mean pet owners should panic. Take more control of the situation by understanding how the virus is likely to behave and taking the appropriate measures to be prepared with supplies at home. Also, learn how infected people should interact with their pets. Implementing appropriate biosecurity measures, as is recommended with birds anyway, can help to reduce the chances of serious illness entering our flocks.
*Addendum March 19, 2020: The 17-year old Pomeranian dog died 2 days after being released from quarantine. The cause of death is unknown and the owner declined a necropsy, but sources close to the case told the South China Morning Post “It is very unlikely the virus had any contribution to the death of the dog”. Hong Kong veterinarians speculated that the dog’s death could have been related to stress and anxiety in this geriatric animal with underlying health problems. Visit Forbes.com for more information. See below link for original article.