Can Your Pet Get SARS?

Written by:

Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ
Published: March 05, 2013

I’m fascinated with public health, especially the correlations between infectious organisms that can potentially affect both people and pets. Therefore, I’ve been following a compelling news stream about human fatalities associated with a SARS-like virus.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, better know as SARS, should sound familiar to you due to the 2002 epidemic that emerged from China. It infected 8,000 people and killed over 800 (more then 10% of infected). SARS is caused by a coronavirus, but this time around the disease causing agent is rather unique. Multiple Reuters Health reports indicate this virus is considered to be a "novel coronavirus" (NCoV).

Conjuring up images of the movie Contagion (a nerd-noir favorite of mine), the scary thing about this particular virus is that it hadn’t been seen in humans until September 2012, when a Middle Eastern man living in Britain tested positive for NCoV.

As of February 27th, 2013, the virus is known to have infected 13 people and killed seven of them (i.e., more then 50% mortality rate!). The common thread in the recent string of infections is that the affected individuals or their family members had traveled to the Middle East.

What is Coronavirus?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), coronavirus are "named for the crown-like spikes on their surface."

Canine Coronavirus (CCV) commonly affects both puppies and adults, yet puppies are more prone to severe complications or even death. CCV thrives in the small intestine and lymph nodes and can be shed in the feces for up to six months post-infection.

In cats, coronavirus contributes to an unusual and deadly disease called Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). It’s a frustrating ailment for both veterinarians and cat owners (especially breeders, shelters, and rescues), as there are multiple forms ("wet" and "dry," each having unique clinical signs) and occasionally inconclusive diagnostic testing results.

Clinical Signs of Coronavirus Infection

Symptoms of coronavirus and SARS include, but are not limited to:

  • Respiratory tract signs: Cough, Difficulty Breathing, Sneeze, etc.
  • Digestive tract signs: vomit, diarrhea, decreased appetite, etc.
  • Fever
  • Lethargy

Unfortunately, these are also clinical signs seen in a variety of infections, including Influenza virus, food-borne bacterial infections, and more.

As a result, you may not actually know that you or your pet has come down with a coronavirus infection until the illness is severe. Additionally, no clinical signs may be apparent, but you or your pets may be spreading the virus to others.

How is Coronavirus Spread?

In humans, coronavirus is most commonly spread by respiratory droplets expelled through a cough or sneeze. The virus can be directly transmitted among people or when an uninfected person comes into contact with contaminated surfaces (including hands, clothing, etc.).

In pets, both respiratory and fecal-oral transmission are common. As pets are not as fastidiously clean as most humans and do not voluntarily wash themselves with detergents, they are more likely to harbor residual respiratory and fecal discharge on their skin or coat (which is just one of the reasons I am an advocate of regular baths for both dogs and cats).

The NCoV has genetic relatives in coronaviruses found in bats, so there’s potential that NCoV jumped species from animals to humans. Diseases that spread in this fashion are termed zoonosis (or reverse zoonosis when transmitting from humans to animals). I covered this topic in my petMD article, Reduce the Potential for Zoonotic Disease Transmission.

Prevention of Coronavirus and SARS in Humans and Pets

In general, it’s vital that we practice good sanitary habits and avoid close contact with other people and pets when we’re sick. We humans should cough into our elbow pits and frequently wash our hands with soap and water, especially when traveling.

For pets, it’s vital to avoid areas where other animals densely congregate (kennels, daycare, shelters, etc.), stress levels are high, and where direct transmission of infectious agents readily occurs. As 100 percent avoidance of such areas can be unrealistic, I suggest infrequent visits to such places, and only when a pet is completely healthy and appropriately vaccinated.

Any place that infected feces remains in contact with surfaces will continue to be a source of infection, even in trace amounts (including human hands and clothing), so immediately removing and disposing of all excrement and cleaning surfaces with an antiseptic agent (bleach, etc.) can kill the virus.

There is a CCV vaccination available for dogs that may be included as part of a puppy or otherwise unvaccinated adult dog’s immunization protocol. Cats can receive a FIP vaccination, yet it’s not guaranteed to create immunity and has the potential to make some cats severely ill.

I clearly remember the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) influenza virus pandemic when cats, dogs, and ferrets fell ill or died after contracting the H1N1 from people. I hope to not be witness to a similar circumstance involving NCoV.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: JPagetRFPhotos / via Shutterstock