Concern spread quickly in April when COVID-19 was identified in a Malayan tiger, followed by two African tigers and three African lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Soon after these unexpected discoveries, two pet dogs and two pet cats in the United States (and a few in other countries) were diagnosed with the virus, thereby increasing pet owners’ anxiety. Could one’s own beloved pets be vulnerable to the virus, and could they possibly spread the disease to humans?
To address mounting concerns, we contacted Dr. Lance Hirsh of the Veterinary Center of Buckhead. It’s a full-service veterinary medical facility that provides preventive healthcare and treatment for animals, while offering educational opportunities for their owners. Hirsh is the founder-owner of the center, which has served Atlanta since 1992.
Hirsh’s own household includes two French bulldogs. His clients regularly bring their pets for standard immunizations. Still, he said, “I don’t anticipate a time when we would be vaccinating dogs and cats for COVID-19. The likelihood of domestic pets becoming infected is extremely low. Also, we know that the house cats that were infected in the United States all recovered, and the two dogs [that reportedly died of COVID-19] were quite old, likely with other conditions.
“It is believed that these animals were infected by their owners,” he said. “I follow the CDC guidelines in this matter, and fear by owners or veterinarians about house pets contracting or spreading the virus is not indicated. The incidence of COVID-19 in pets is so insignificant, I don’t see it as a current veterinary issue.”
Hirsh added, “Obviously, each of us in our office takes COVID-19 seriously. We will vigilantly continue to safely provide all the services pets need, which can include surgeries, treatment of injuries, stem cell procedures and meds assessments. Our staff consists of myself, my associate Dr. Greg Jenkins, and several technicians. We essential workers are determined to come to work healthy so that we cannot infect each other or our patients. We wear masks and gloves when we work, and we maintain proper distancing and wear gloves and masks when we meet pet owners outside our office to receive their pets and to return them.”
When asked about possible contamination of his facility’s boarded animals, Hirsh laughs, “Pets are boarded here when their owners are working or go on vacation. At this moment, with no boarded animals, we aren’t thinking about it! When boarding resumes, we’ll take every necessary precaution.”
Hirsh detailed the CDC guidelines and procedures his facility would follow in case of the very unlikely presence of COVID-19 in a pet. “If someone brought us a sick animal with respiratory issues and we had reason to suspect infection from the virus — and I don’t anticipate this happening — we would submit our own testing to a large, regionally-based, national veterinary lab like Antech here in Atlanta, which gathers extensive data and works on diagnostic solutions,” he said.
On June 1, The New York Times reported the first confirmed COVID-19 case of a canine house pet, a German shepherd. One of the dog’s owners tested positive for the virus, and the other owner showed symptoms of the disease. The dog is expected to make a full recovery.
“The best advice I can give is to treat your pet just as you would a family member. Keep pets away from infected family members, don’t let your pet interact with other pets, as in doggie parks, and walk your pet on a leash.”
Hirsh is eager to reassure all pet owners who may be concerned that their pets could infect them. “We have no scientific evidence whatsoever that house pets play a role in the transmission of COVID-19 to humans. I treat pets and I own pets, and I feel no more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the next person.”
In this time of uncertainty, those comforting words are good to hear.
Veterinary Center of Buckhead is located at 3615 Piedmont Road in Atlanta and can be reached at 404-841-9679.