Risk Factors for SARS-CoV-2 Infection and Illness in Cats and Dogs

Dorothee Bienzle; Joyce Rousseau; David Marom; Jennifer MacNicol; Linda Jacobson; Stephanie Sparling; Natalie Prystajecky; Erin Fraser; J. Scott Weese

Disclosures

Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2022;28(6):1154-1162. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

We tested swab specimens from pets in households in Ontario, Canada, with human COVID-19 cases by quantitative PCR for SARS-CoV-2 and surveyed pet owners for risk factors associated with infection and seropositivity. We tested serum samples for spike protein IgG and IgM in household pets and also in animals from shelters and low-cost neuter clinics. Among household pets, 2% (1/49) of swab specimens from dogs and 7.7% (5/65) from cats were PCR positive, but 41% of dog serum samples and 52% of cat serum samples were positive for SARS-CoV-2 IgG or IgM. The likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 seropositivity in pet samples was higher for cats but not dogs that slept on owners' beds and for dogs and cats that contracted a new illness. Seropositivity in neuter-clinic samples was 16% (35/221); in shelter samples, 9.3% (7/75). Our findings indicate a high likelihood for pets in households of humans with COVID-19 to seroconvert and become ill.

Introduction

SARS-CoV-2 originated in horseshoe bats and probably reached humans through an unidentified intermediary host.[1] The virus is aerosolized and highly transmissible among humans; new variants have arisen and spread in successive waves across the world since late 2019. Since a report of SARS-CoV-2 infection in a dog in March 2020,[2] an ever-increasing range of species has been shown to be susceptible to infection, including household cats, dogs, ferrets, and hamsters.[3–10]

Companion animals have closest contact with humans, creating ample opportunity for exposure. Experimental infections have suggested that most companion animals are infected only transiently, as indicated by PCR positivity or virus isolation.[11,12] Conversely, detection of antibodies by ELISA or neutralizing antibody assay suggests infection rates of 0.2%–43.9% related to factors such as the likelihood and frequency of interaction with infected humans.[13–16] Infections in animals are typically subclinical or associated with transient respiratory or gastrointestinal disease.[17,18] In rare cases, death has been attributed to SARS-CoV-2 infection; however, defining the contribution of SARS-CoV-2 to death in animals with underlying conditions such as cancer, bacterial pneumonia, or obesity is challenging. On the other hand, minks are highly susceptible to infection and pneumonia, and mortality rates of 35%–55% caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection were reported from outbreaks among farmed mink in Utah.[19] Captive minks also contracted viruses with a unique amino acid substitution in the spike (S) protein that were subsequently retransmitted to humans and to community cats and dogs, around mink farms in the Netherlands.[5,20] Similarly, infected pet Syrian hamsters may also retransmit SARS-CoV-2 to humans.[21] More than 30% of free-ranging white-tailed deer tested in Ohio were SARS-CoV-2 positive by PCR, and a similarly high proportion of white-tailed deer in Texas and other North America locations had neutralizing antibodies.[22,23] Experimentally, white-tailed deer transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to other deer vertically and horizontally by direct contact.[24] It has not yet been determined if infected deer experience illness or have increased illness and death rates or if transmission is sustained among wild deer populations. However, such high prevalence suggests SARS-CoV-2 may become endemic in some deer populations in North America.

SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominantly via aerosols, aided by proximity of infected and susceptible hosts, the degree of host susceptibility, and the concentration of infectious virions in air. Although most infections in animals originate from humans, neither risk factors for zoonotic transmission from humans to pets nor the frequency and nature of clinical illness in pets are well defined. We report the frequency of SARS-CoV-2 seropositivity in cohorts of pets from households, low-cost neuter clinics, and animal shelters in Ontario, Canada, and analyze household risk factors associated with seropositivity. The University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) approved the studies by Animal Utilization Protocol 4411 and Research Ethics Board Protocol 20-04-002.

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