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Comparing Coronaviruses in Veterinary Medicine

Melissa A. Kennedy, DVM, PhD, DACVM, University of Tennessee

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Published April 10, 2020, at 3:15 PM CST

Clinicians are often at the forefront of interaction with emerging pathogens, and COVID-19 is no exception. All clinicians—from academia to industry to general practice—are important sources of information for the public regarding this emerging virus.

SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for the global COVID-19 disease pandemic. The Coronaviridae virus family includes many important veterinary pathogens classified as alphacoronaviruses (eg, transmissible gastroenteritis virus, FIP, canine enteric virus) and betacoronaviruses (eg, SARS-CoV-2, bovine coronavirus, canine respiratory coronavirus). Companion animal coronaviruses are common pathogens and appear to be species-specific. Infection of respective hosts typically does not cause severe disease; most cases are mild or subclinical, except in the very young. These companion animal coronaviruses do not share antigenicity with SARS-CoV-2; thus, current vaccines for feline, canine, and bovine coronaviruses do not provide protection against SARS-CoV-2.

Feline coronavirus (FCoV) is also associated with FIP, which is a serious disease of cats that demonstrates a complex pathogenesis involving virus, host, and environmental factors. Although FCoV infection is not uncommon, FIP is rare and affects a minority of cats infected with FCoV. Neither FIP nor its causative virus (ie, FCoV) share pathogenic or antigenic properties with SARS-CoV-2.

SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have originated in bats and infected an intermediate host(s); this is similar to the association between civets and SARS-CoV-1. SARS-CoV-2 uses angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) to attach to and enter the cell. This molecule is potentially recognized by SARS-CoV-2 in a range of animal species (eg, palm civets, pigs, cats, ferrets, nonhuman primates), suggesting the virus may infect these animals and warranting further study.1 It is therefore important that clinicians exercise precautions with any animal that has been in contact with an infected human.2 See recommendations provided by WSAVA here.

It is also important for clinicians to reassure owners that the risk for contracting COVID-19 disease from their pet is currently determined to be low and that pets should not be euthanized, abandoned, or otherwise removed from households. Current recommendations for owners include2:

  • Companion animals should be kept with owners who are self-quarantining. 
  • Good hygiene practices, including regular hand washing, should be maintained when interacting with pets.
  • Care for companion animals with family or friends should be arranged if owner hospitalization is required.
  • A veterinarian should be contacted immediately with questions or concerns.

In addition, clinicians must protect their clinic and staff, including implementing strict protective practices, as with any respiratory disease patient. It is also important that disseminated information be valid and accurate. There is currently no evidence that domestic animals (eg, dogs, cats) can transmit COVID-19 to uninfected humans, and limited reports exist regarding clinical infection in dogs and cats.3   

The public will continue to look to the veterinary community for information and recommendations, and it is imperative that clinicians remain informed and serve as a resource for owners with concerns about pet-associated risks for infection. The veterinary community must provide reassurance and support for the welfare of patients and their owners. Objectivity and equanimity are of critical importance in times of stress.


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