After some cats test positive, CDC says social distancing applies to pets too

Agency recommends treating pets "like family," keep away from other people.

April 27, 2020, 11:24 AM

After two feline friends in New York became the first U.S. household pets to test positive for the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pet owners should take the precaution of simply treating pets like "other human family members."

Though there have only been a handful of known cases of animals becoming infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, the advisory issued last week suggests people apply the same social distancing measures to their pets as they do to family with whom they're living.

That means keeping cats indoors and walking dogs on a leash at least six feet away from other animals and other people. And best to avoid dog parks.

Inside the home, it's fine to interact with pets as you normally would, ideally with frequent hand washing and good pet hygiene. But if someone in the household gets sick, the CDC says pets should be kept a safe distance from that person -- just like the human members of the family.

“Social distancing applies to your pets too,” said Veterinary Specialist Dr. Melissa Salgado. “They are at risk of developing this disease so it’s best to err on the side of caution.”

Salgado, who diagnosed one of the infected cats, added that testing for animals is more invasive than it is for humans and for now, routine testing is not recommended by the CDC.

“Testing requires swabs of the nose, of the mouth, and the conjunctiva of the eyes, as well as fecal testing,” Salgado said. “And there’s so many illnesses in pets that aren’t coronavirus that we aren’t advocating for widespread testing.”

According to the CDC, the two felines who tested positive for the coronavirus experienced mild respiratory symptoms and are expected to make a full recovery.

PHOTO: Arfa Yousuf, 8, holds he pet cat after completing her martial arts virtural belt test at her home in Richardson, Texas, April 23, 2020.
Arfa Yousuf, 8, holds he pet cat after completing her martial arts virtural belt test at her home in Richardson, Texas, April 23, 2020.
LM Otero/AP

While the cats are believed to have contracted the virus from people in their households or neighborhoods, experts say there is not enough information to say that pets can pass it on to humans.

At a coronavirus briefing last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, emphasized that “there’s no evidence whatsoever that we’ve seen from an epidemiological standpoint that pets can be transmitters within a household.”

However, some experts believe some animals are more susceptible to the virus than others.

Dr. Sandra Newbury, director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin has been conducting studies on how the virus affects animals and was not surprised by the news of the two felines.

“Cats have a particular receptor and we suspected early on that they might be able to be infected,” said Newbury. “We think it is more difficult to infect dogs and our experimental studies have proven just that.”

This isn’t the first time cats have tested positive for the virus. Eight of the household cats' larger relatives, lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo, have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

According to Newbury, there is a possibility that more animals could be infected but are not displaying symptoms.

“The cases in Hong Kong had no clinical signs, no symptoms at all,” Newbury said. “Animals could be asymptomatic just like some people but more studies need to be done to confirm anything.”

But pet owners can generally relax, Newbury said, since there's little evidence that owners pose a risk to their furry companions, and should only take in-home precautions if someone in the home becomes sick.

“There's no reason to relinquish your pet or send your pet away if you've become sick,” Newbury said. “Although it’s not easy, refraining from petting and snuggling during this time is the best way to keep your pets safe.”

This report was featured in the Wednesday, April 29, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.