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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 5  |  Page : 49-55

Evidence for SARS-CoV-2 circulating among stray dogs and cats: Should we worry about our pets during the COVID-19 Pandemic?

1 Mycobacteriology Research Center, National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (NRITLD), Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran
2 Department of Biotechnology, School of Advanced Technologies in Medicine, Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran
3 Virology Research Center, National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases (NRITLD), Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran
4 Department of Global Public Health, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden

Date of Submission10-Jun-2020
Date of Acceptance13-Aug-2020
Date of Web Publication13-Aug-2020

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Parissa Farnia
Mycobacteriology Research Center, National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (NRITLD), Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/bbrj.bbrj_130_20

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Severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) causes the COVID-19 infectious disease. Despite the high level of quarantine control in many well-developed countries, the disease has spread to more than 113 countries all over the world, creating a global pandemic. This emerging situation raises many questions. Can the infection be just through human-to-human transmission or are other sources, for example, animal to human or other environmental sources, also involved? We reviewed the previous literature and assessed the potential risk of transmitting the coronavirus from pets to humans. The pets (dogs and cats), especially dogs, have a habit of licking themselves in the buttocks, or smelling others in the buttocks. In such a way, they may get the virus into their respiratory or digestive tract. In return, once they lick people in the face, they may transmit the diseases. In this study, we not only reviewed the literature on pets and their relationship to the coronavirus but we also tested 22 stray dogs and cats, collected from nearby areas that were used for hospitalization of COVID-19 patients. Although no direct connection was found between these pets and the hospital, we found that 14 (63.6%) out of the 22 pets were positive for COVID-19 with the molecular test. Among them, seven (31.8%) had coughing and sneezing symptoms. The studied cases were stray pets, but the question that remains to be clarified is whether home pets are engaged in a chain of transmission or not? This needs further investigation.

Keywords: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, outbreak, transmission through animals, source infection

How to cite this article:
Farnia P, Aghajani J, Farnia P, Ayoubi S, Ghanavi J, Nadji SA, Hoffner S, Velayati AA. Evidence for SARS-CoV-2 circulating among stray dogs and cats: Should we worry about our pets during the COVID-19 Pandemic?. Biomed Biotechnol Res J 2020;4, Suppl S1:49-55

How to cite this URL:
Farnia P, Aghajani J, Farnia P, Ayoubi S, Ghanavi J, Nadji SA, Hoffner S, Velayati AA. Evidence for SARS-CoV-2 circulating among stray dogs and cats: Should we worry about our pets during the COVID-19 Pandemic?. Biomed Biotechnol Res J [serial online] 2020 [cited 2022 Aug 14];4, Suppl S1:49-55. Available from: https://www.bmbtrj.org/text.asp?2020/4/5/49/292079

  Introduction Top


Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses and subspecies of coronaviridae that includes the common cold virus as well as viruses that cause more serious diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and COVID-19.[1] Coronaviruses were discovered in the 1960s.[1]

The virus is naturally found in mammals and birds, but so far, seven human-transmitted coronaviruses have been discovered.[2] The latest type of pathogen has been identified as a new coronavirus,[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8],[9],[10],[11] known as SARS-coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2).[12] The disease was subsequently named by the World Health Organization as COVID-19.[2],[3]

The disease was first mentioned in December 2019, in Wuhan, China.[13]

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are divided into four genera (alphacoronavirus, betacoronavirus, deltacoronavirus, and gammacoronavirus), with 40 species and 22 subspecies. The coronavirus family has always been transmitted from one species to another. The virus may mutate for easier transmission and cause more severe disease. The newly identified SARS-CoV-2 is a member of the order Nidovirales, the Coronaviridae family, and the orthocoronavirinae subfamily.[13],[14]

The members of this subfamily Coronavirinae are divided into four genera: (a) alphacoronavirus that includes human coronavirus (HCoV)-229E and HcoV-NL63; (b) betacoronavirus that includes HCoV-OC43, SARS-HCoV, HCoV-HKU1, and MERS CoV; (c) gammacoronavirus that includes whale and bird viruses; and (d) deltacoronavirus that includes viruses that are isolated from pigs and birds.[15],[16],[17]

Although SARS-CoV-2 has a 96.2% nucleotide-level identity with coronavirus RaTG13, which was discovered in horseshoe bats (Rhinolophus spp.) in the Yunnan province in 2013, it has not been previously observed in humans or other animals.[3]

SARS-CoV-2 is a single-stranded RNA (+ ssRNA) and a positive virus.[18] The virus can be transmitted by coughing and sputum, nasal secretions, stool, saliva, urine, and blood.[13] Therefore, in several ways, an infected patient can transmit the virus to the environment.[13]

The human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 occurs mainly through large droplets, where the risk is limited to 6 feet per patient with COVID-19.[13] To reduce such virus transmission (large droplets), the use of a standard surgical mask is recommended.[13] Symptoms include fever, dry cough, and sometimes difficulty breathing, such as shortness of breath, sore throat, and runny nose [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Common symptoms of coronavirus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States)

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It is not yet known whether the present disease was first transmitted to humans through animals or through virus-infected surfaces.

Overall, the findings suggest that bats may be the main host of the virus.[5],[19] However, studies are needed to determine whether intermediate hosts have facilitated the transmission of the virus to humans.

The emerging situation raises many immediate questions. Can viruses be widely transmitted from bats to other animal species, which later becomes a source of contamination? The SARS-CoV-2 infection has a wide range of clinical features in humans, from mild to death, but how does the virus affect animals?

  Our Study About Potential Intermediate Hosts in Coronavirus Top

As mentioned earlier, SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have originated from bats, however, the presence of potential intermediate animal sources is completely unknown.[3]

In addition to bat CoV is isolated from Malayan or Javan or Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica).[20] In addition, there are still conflicting hypotheses about the animal origin of the virus, with some studies linking the virus to bat,[21],[22] while others have linked the virus to snakes.[15],[23] Overall, these findings suggest that bats may be the main, but not the only, source of the virus.[5],[19] However, the first case of COVID-19 in Wuhan occurred in patients who had no association with the seafood market.[24] Furthermore, bats are rare in Chinese markets.[25]

Although SARS-CoV-2 may theoretically be transmitted directly from bats to humans, the evidence so far suggests that it may have been indirectly transmitted through another animal that acts as an intermediate host to transmit the virus to humans. Although an intermediate animal species has not yet been identified, it could be one of the wildlife species sold in the Wuhan seafood market.[26]

In any case, a study is needed to determine whether the intermediate hosts have facilitated the transmission of the virus to humans.[15]

When a dog in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus, it quickly raised questions among pet owners and the general public. This was the first known case of the potential for SARS-CoV-2 transmission from humans to animals and vice versa.[26]

In another report, a Pomeranian was tested after its owner became infected with COVID-19. Although the dog had no clinical symptoms, oral, nasal, and rectal swab samples were “weakly positive” in the SARS-CoV-2 tests. The dog was quarantined for 14 days before returning home. The dog died just 2 days after returning home. The cause of death is unknown because the owner did not consent to the postmortem examination. Experts believe that his death is unlikely to be positive for SARS-CoV-2.[26],[27]

Another study in Canada shows that the best human friend – a dog – can be responsible for this. The virus may have mutated in the intestines of dogs.[26] The study, conducted by molecular biologist Xuhua Xia at the University of Ottawa in Canada, shows that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus may have grown in the intestinal tract of dogs.[28]

One theory is that stray dogs have eaten bats that may have been leftover from cooking, and the virus has been mutated ever since.[26]

  • Dogs are accustomed to licking their hips or licking others, and that way the virus can be transmitted to the respiratory tract. As a result, it can lead to a virus transmission cycle.[26]

In the late March 2020, health officials in Belgium reported that a cat from Liege province had also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, about a week after its owner was diagnosed with COVID-19.[29]

The cat showed symptoms of the disease, including diarrhea, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. These clinical symptoms are relatively nonspecific and can occur in cats in relation to specific conditions.[27] In fact, one of the confusing factors about cats is the fact that other coronaviruses affect cats.

On April 22, 2020, the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in the United States announced the first approved SARS-CoV-2 in two domestic cats.[30] This is the first pet report in the United States that described animals tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.[30] The cats lived in two separate areas of New York State. Both had mild respiratory symptoms. In the case of New York, a veterinarian tested the first cat after seeing mild respiratory symptoms.[30] None of the family members had COVID-19. The virus may be mild or asymptomatic in members of the household, or it may be transmitted through contact with an infected person outside the home.[30],[31] Samples were taken from the second cat after observing the symptoms of respiratory disease. The cat owner tested positive for COVID-19 before showing the cat's symptoms.[30] Another cat in the house showed no signs of illness. Due to the emergence of this virus, there is still not enough attention to measures for this type of animal in the community, which can be dangerous for both their well-being and that of their owners.[30]

We are still in the early stages of understanding this new virus in humans, let alone animals. Therefore, more time and testing will be needed to better understand how SARS-CoV-2 behaves in pets.

Interestingly, these reports are not just about pets, a Malay tiger at the Bronx Zoo of the Wildlife Conservation Association on April 5 was also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.[28]

The animal was one of the several tigers and lions that showed signs of a dry cough. However, due to the need for general anesthesia to collect diagnostic samples from these large cats, this tiger was the only animal that had clinical symptoms and was tested for the virus.[32],[33]

To date, authorities in Hong Kong have tested samples collected from more than 25 pets living in homes where their owners have either received the correct diagnosis of COVID-19 or with someone with the disease. They have been in close contact with the disease. However, only two dogs and one cat in this group tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.[31],[34]

Another very worrying issue is that cats and dogs, as close human friends, often travel by airline with their owners. And since the onset of the disease, COVID-19, the rules for bringing these animals into countries have not changed. In most countries, cats and dogs need a veterinarian's appearance, a health certificate, and a valid rabies vaccination certificate, depending on where they come from.[31],[35]

Because people on most flights have the right to carry dogs and cats with them as baggage in the flight or to move them with special cabins in the cargo area, there are concerns about the transmission of the disease by these animals in the form of fomites from one country to another.

The issue of the disease cycle becomes more complicated when we come across reports of contamination of nonpotable water with coronavirus in Paris. According to media reports, city officials in Paris have found the coronavirus in nonpotable water in Paris.[36]

The Paris Water Authority tested several nonpotable water samples in its laboratory. Among these samples, small amounts of the virus were found in 4 of the 27 samples tested. Nonpotable water in Paris is used to clean the streets, water the city's parks and gardens, and provide public ornamental springs.[36]

However, according to the city officials, drinking water did not include the report and the tests, and there is nothing to worry about. According to the report, Paris officials are consulting with the regional health agency and are conducting a risk analysis to decide on the next steps.[36]

The emergence of the new epidemic has once again highlighted the complex interrelationships that exist between animals, people, and the environment.

Given the global concern to find the source of the disease for better understanding and to achieve faster treatment, the research team at the Mycobacteriology Research Center, the National Research Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases (NRITLD), decided to try other possible sources of the virus. There is a hypothesis that domestic and stray animals, such as dogs and cats, may act as intermediate hosts for the virus or a member of the disease transmission cycle, which may play a role in the rapid spread of the virus. For this reason, 22 cats and dogs (8 [36.4%] dogs and 14 [63.64%] cats) were examined for COVID-19. These dogs and cats were individuals, not clustered, and were all collected around hospitals and major coronavirus control centers such as Darabad and Tajrish in Tehran. First, their saliva was sampled by swab and the samples were examined using the real-time polymerase chain reaction method. Of these, three dogs and four cats had symptoms such as cough. The results showed that 5 (62.5%) of the dogs studied were positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and 9 (64.29%) out of the 14 cats were reported to be positive for the virus [Table 1].
Table 1: The results of samples tested in our study to examine coronavirus in stray dogs and cats so far

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Our research is ongoing and in the next phase, with the help of the Tehran Municipality and some veterinary centers, we are collecting and sampling stray dogs and cats from the city to examine the results of the study in a large scale. On the other hand, questionnaires have been designed to examine the previous or new relationship of patients with COVID-19 with these animals, inside and outside of their house.

However, what has occupied our minds is the potential role of these animals in the transmission chain as the main source of contamination. These animals are present in large numbers in different parts of the city and can contaminate their surroundings by spilling saliva, hair, excrement, etc., In our opinion, group and inter-country studies should be considered in this regard and large-scale studies should be conducted in the form of international cooperation to investigate the source of infection in this disease. It can be said that it is possible that stray dogs and cats can be carriers and part of the disease transmission chain. The research to further prove or reject this issue in Iran is still ongoing, and we will provide more reports in this regard in future.

  Can Coronavirus Infect Cats and Dogs? Top

Since the initial identification of the virus at the beginning of 2020, several studies have been conducted to determine the main source of the virus for better management and control of virus transmission. Numerous studies have been reported to identify the main source of the virus.

Reports indicate that COVID-19 sequences are very similar to several wild animals such as bats and pangolins. Contradictory results have also been reported about the origin of the virus in reptiles such as snakes.[17] Numerous reports confirm that several species of poultry and birds, as well as cattle, horses, goats, pork, dogs, lice, camels, rodents, ferrets, enamel, bats, snakes, frogs, Martos, hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus), and Malayan or Javan or Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), can be carriers/reservoirs of the viruses.[13],[31],[37],[38],[39],[40] However, only genetic studies of the virus's genome can reveal the main source of the virus, its biology, and its pathogenicity.[17] Infections caused by coronavirus have been observed in humans and several farm animals, domestic animals, laboratory animals, bats, whales, and wildlife.[13]

Coronaviruses such as alphacoronavirus and betacoronavirus usually infect cats, bats, and other mammals, whereas coronaviruses such as gammacoronavirus and deltacoronavirus infect poultry, fish, and mammals.[41],[42],[43] Coronaviruses affect several animal hosts and are classified in the Coronaviridae family, which belongs to a different genus [Figure 2]. The different species of coronaviruses are depicted in [Figure 2].[13]
Figure 2: Prevalence of four subspecies of coronavirus (alphacoronavirus, betacoronavirus, gammacoronavirus, and deltacoronavirus) in different groups of mammal and poultry species[13]

Click here to view

The results show that SARS-CoV-2 can be effectively propagated in cats.[44],[45],[46] Although younger cats are more susceptible and most importantly, the virus can also be transmitted between cats by air.[3] Dogs are also less sensitive to SARS-CoV-2.[3],[31]

There are concerns about the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from rodents, domestic cats, and dogs to humans. The epidemiological and genetic data provided suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have originated from an animal host such as a dog or a cat.[3] However, there is still no conclusive evidence to support this hypothesis. Alternatively, the disease may have been transmitted from domestic animals to humans.[3] Much remains to be done before we have a clear picture. However, genetic and antigenic analyses of the virus have shown that in addition to bats, other domestic and wild animals such as dogs, cats, and even cows can transmit the virus to humans. Cats and dogs have close contact with humans, so it is important to understand the sensitivity of the SARS-CoV-2 from animals to humans and vice versa to control COVID-19.[3],[47]

However, the origin of the virus is still unknown, and whether dogs and cats can transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus to humans has not yet been determined. Accordingly, there is currently no evidence that animals such as dogs and domestic cats can be the source of COVID-19 infection for humans or other animals, and this requires extensive research.[48] However, a study published in China shows that live animal markets, which exist not only in the People's Republic of China but also around the world, are likely to play an important role in the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These markets were known to be the source of the influenza virus, as was the case in Hong Kong in February 2003. Unhealthy crowded conditions and close contact between different species of animals and between animals and humans provide the optimal environment for the spread of emerging diseases.[47],[48]

International veterinary officials emphasize that dogs and cats can be infected with the new SARS-CoV-2 virus. Recent reports show evidence of mild contamination of dogs and pets with COVID-19 by their owners in Hong Kong. Fomites may be the main source of transmission for the virus,[18] as SARS-CoV has been shown to stay on the surface for up to 96 h and other coronaviruses for up to 9 days.[49] A newer study, released on February 21, also confirmed the asymptomatic transmission.[50] However, any study may be limited to reporting errors in symptoms or contact with other items. Findings related to disease characteristics are changing rapidly and depend on the bias of choice.

  How Can We Protect Cats and Dogs from Coronavirus? Top

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus, one of the most important questions is whether pets such as dogs and cats will be infected and can be transmitted? How should we treat pets and wild animals?[51] These concerns became more serious after the results of several positive dog and cat tests were announced. However, in recent days, it has been announced that one of the tigers of the zoo in the United States has also contracted the virus, and then a new wave of rumors and speculations arose about the relationship between coronavirus and pets such as dogs and cats and the risk of being with them.[33],[52],[53] As mentioned in the previous section, coronavirus is one of those viruses that can be transmitted between humans and animals. So far, rare cases of dogs and domestic cats infected with the coronavirus have been discovered, and after their owners became infected with the coronavirus, the test results of these animals were also positive.[47],[48],[52],[54] In February, the results of a Pomeranian dog test were almost positive, and the animal died in March. However, according to the South China Morning Post, the cause of the dog's death may have been his advanced age.[55],[56] Additionally, in the case of a 2-year-old German Shepherd dog in Hong Kong, after a positive test by its owner, it was determined that the animal was also infected with the coronavirus. Surprisingly, the test result of another dog living in this house was negative, and she was healthy.[52],[57] The infected poultry bags in Hong Kong did not end there, and a cat became infected with the coronavirus in the area. However, another cat mentioned in the news is in Belgium, and according to the National Veterinary Service, it has not shown any signs of gastrointestinal or respiratory diseases.[52],[58]

As mentioned earlier, cats are more likely than dogs to be more susceptible to coronavirus. In a study, domestic cats with COVID-19 who had samples of the virus in their noses were placed next to healthy cats. Sometime later, the researchers discovered that the healthy cats were also infected with the virus, and that the virus may have been transmitted through respiratory droplets. Given that cats and dogs can be potential carriers of the disease, it is best to follow the principles of hygiene.[1],[58],[59],[60] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States (CDC), on the other hand, has stated that any animal can carry particles and tiny objects that can cause human disease, so whether there is a pervasive disease or not, it is best to wash our hands before and after contact with the animal, its food, or its excrement.[61],[62] You should not let your pet lick your face.[1],[23] Wildlife should not be allowed to come into contact with pets. Due to the difference in the lifespan of the coronavirus on different levels, it is possible that our dogs and domestic cats will carry the virus in their hair without contracting the virus.[51] However, so far, no research has been done on the durability of coronavirus on surfaces such as plastic, cardboard, metal, and animal body hair.

Personal hygiene is also important not only for the protection of other human beings but also for the health of our pets. According to the CDC, if you experience the symptoms of COVID-19 disease, you should limit your contact with animals, in the same way, you do with humans. You should avoid hugging, kissing, having close contact, and sharing your food with pets to prevent the virus from being transmitted to the animal or even to yourself.[61]

  Conclusion Top

Since the initial identification of the virus, several studies have been conducted to determine the main source of the virus for better management and control of virus transmission. Numerous studies have been reported to identify the main source of the virus. As shown in this study, a lot of investigation is being done and due to the newness of this virus, complete information is not available, and comprehensive and additional research is needed to confirm or reject some of them. However, as we have mentioned, the transmission of this virus from cats and dogs to humans and vice versa is possible, and it is possible that dogs and cats can be involved in the chain of transmission source to humans. Another thing to keep in mind is that dogs and cats can act as mechanical carriers for the virus, especially in people who are in close contact with these animals.

Therefore, to maintain the health of yourself and your animals, it is recommended that you observe the health issues completely: do not allow pets to interact with people or other animals outside the home. If possible, keep your cat indoors to prevent them from interacting with animals or other people. Avoid parks or public places where large number of people and dogs gather. Avoid kissing or licking and sharing food or bedding when in contact with your pet. Avoid wild animals. If you feed or see stray dogs and cats, be sure to wear a mask and protective equipment and keep your distance. Wash your hands before and after contact with the animal, its food, or its excrement.


We would like to thank all the colleagues at the Mycobacterium Research Center (MRC), NRITLD, Masih Daneshvari Hospital.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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