My colleagues and I have been familiar with coronavirus for many years. I’m truly sorry that all the rest of you had to take this disheveled crash course in virology that’s been thrust upon you by the circumstances. I would be honored, however, to serve as a conduit of accurate information in a time when scientific fiction seems to abound.
The coronaviruses already known to veterinarians are distant cousins of COVID-19 and are understandably eager to cut all ties with this infamous villain. So please allow me to clarify their status right now. The two coronaviruses of dogs are flimsy characters that rarely cause disease. Even when they do, medical intervention is almost never needed. Cats possess a spineless coronavirus also, which is usually repelled easily by the normal feline immune system and results only in brief and mild intestinal troubles. These coronaviruses, and the one that causes common colds in people, are from the alphacoronavirus side of the family. They have virtually nothing in common with the betacoronavirus side, which is the group containing SARS, MERS, and COVID-19. Therefore, even though dog and cat coronavirus is everywhere in the environment, it does not pose a threat to you at all.
You may have heard that coronaviruses are pretty easy to kill. That’s true, but COVID-19 has still managed to make a real splash on planet Earth due to its other strengths. It recognizes a particular molecule that you have on the lining of your respiratory tract, and that’s how it finds its way. It can be very aggressive once inside, yet it can reproduce and move on to the next person (and the next) before that original patient becomes too sick to move around with their daily routine. That, and the fact that it’s also capable of producing really mild infections, allow this virus to hitchhike with an oblivious host all around town and drop off its offspring in lots of interesting places. COVID-19 can be obtained in its infectious form from surfaces such as door handles, countertops, and gas pumps. In 2020, these ominous items have been renamed “fomites.” Could one of our pets function in the same way?
Research has shown us that the virus does not last or transfer well on softer, more fibrous surfaces such as clothing and, presumably, pet hair. It would therefore be quite difficult for the fur of a pet to carry infectious COVID-19. However, if you were quarantined with proven disease in a part of your house, the dog and cat really shouldn’t be allowed to move in and out of your area 500 times a day, in the manner to which most of our pets are accustomed. It is a challenge for this virus to spread via pet fur, but a bit less of a challenge if you cough directly onto the cat and he strolls out to snuggle on Grandma’s lap 30 seconds later. For the purpose of keeping “clean” zones of this house COVID-free, it would be smart to limit the movements of pets within an affected home.
Dr. M.S. Regan