Guelph, Ont., researchers study coronavirus infection in pets

Click to play video 'Study investigates how COVID-19 infections impact pets' Study investigates how COVID-19 infections impact pets
WATCH ABOVE: Researchers at University of Guelph are trying to figure out why some pets get infected with COVID-19. As Erica Vella reports, it came on the same day a dog in the U.S. tested positive for the virus – Apr 29, 2020

Researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ont. are trying to figure out why some pets get infected with the novel coronavirus and others do not.

The new study is one of the first of its kind to examine what sort of risk COVID-19 in humans poses to their pets.

READ MORE: 2 New York cats test positive for coronavirus, first pets in U.S.

The study is being led by Profs. Scott Weese and Dorothee Bienzle from the department of pathobiology.

“We’re trying to understand how often human-to-animal spread happens,” Weese said. “We already know it can happen. We’ve seen it in various instances. Now, we’re trying to find how common it is.”

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The researchers are seeking volunteer participants with cats, dogs or ferrets living in households where one member has symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or has had a positive test result.

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While COVID-19 is predominantly a human disease, human-to-pet transmission can occur but appears to be rare, according to Weese.

“We know that cats can get sick with this virus, but we don’t know how commonly that occurs,” he said. “Dogs seem less likely to get sick but we don’t know if that’s because they get infected less often or because they don’t get sick when they are infected.”

READ MORE: Can I get the coronavirus from my pet?

Since the novel coronavirus emerged, there have been reports of animals testing positive for the disease that caused COVID-19 including two dogs in Hong Kong, two tigers and a lion in a New York City zoo, and cats and minks in Europe.

Despite the low the risk to pets, one Toronto veterinarian says it’s still important to practise social distancing while out in public.

“No off-leash parks, no doggy daycare, no grooming. All those things should not be done at this time,” Dr. Darren Honest told Global News. “So if you go out for a walk, don’t interact with other people, maintain that social distancing, don’t let other people handle your pet.”

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The university said the study will investigate what factors contribute to pets becoming infected and which types of households are at the highest risk of having COVID-19 infections spread to pets.

So far researchers have sampled close to a dozen pets, but they would like to recruit several dozen more.

Pet owners are asked a few questions to determine if they meet the criteria. If they do, researchers would visit the household to collect swabs from the pet.

Click to play video 'Keeping pets healthy in self-isolation' Keeping pets healthy in self-isolation
Keeping pets healthy in self-isolation – Apr 16, 2020

The swabs will be tested for the virus and any positive samples will be compared with the original coronavirus strain circulating among humans.

READ MORE: University of Calgary researchers study risk of COVID-19 transmission from humans to pets

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The university said the sequencing may reveal whether the virus has undergone changes in the pets that make it more likely to infect animals, Weese said.

“There are still many things we want to know about the virus and the interactions between humans and pets,” he said. “We need to have an idea of how often human-to-pet transmission occurs first. This study will lay the groundwork for that future research.”