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Caring for pets during the COVID-19 pandemic

Ohio State veterinary medicine experts address questions and concerns

The anxiety of trying to stay safe through the COVID-19 pandemic is not reserved only for the humans enduring stay-at-home orders and social isolation.

Pets might be anxious, too – at the same time most are probably glad their owners are home all day, every day. Even good change can be hard for domestic animals to adjust to, says M. Leanne Lilly, assistant professor-clinical of veterinary clinical sciences at The Ohio State University.

Lilly, who specializes in veterinary behavioral medicine, was among a panel of College of Veterinary Medicine experts who addressed questions submitted by pet owners during an April 9 webinar.

“Treat your pets like family. Remember this is a hard change for them, too, so make sure their behavioral needs are met,” she said. “There are more chances for inappropriate interactions from a pet perspective. Don’t overdo it.

“Be gentle with yourselves as you’re being gentle with your pets.”

Many questions from viewers revolved around a recent study in China that revealed cats and ferrets appear to be susceptible to getting sick after being inoculated with the novel coronavirus. The findings also suggested that cats could infect each other. The study found that dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks are able to resist the virus’s efforts to make copies of itself and cause infection.

Jeanette O’Quin, assistant professor-clinical of veterinary preventive medicine, said that the results of that single study need to be considered along with the rarity of natural cases in animals. Pet owners probably needn’t worry much about risk of coronavirus infection to cats and dogs in their homes, she said.

Researchers introduced a very high dose of the virus to animals in the study. And the cats that were infected recovered without incident after having mild symptoms: respiratory problems, fever and lethargy, which are symptoms linked to many common pet illnesses.

“What that study tells us is what’s possible, but it doesn’t really tell us what’s probable,” said O’Quin, a specialist in infectious disease control. “This is a distinctly human virus that passes readily from person to person.

“The risk to animals is very low, and the risk from animals to people is even lower.”

Essentially, the experts said that what it takes for humans to stay safe right now is also good for pets: Shelter in place together, avoid pet play dates and when walking dogs, keep them on a leash and maintain a safe distance between yourself and your pet and other owners and their dogs.

Owners who have tested positive for COVID-19 and don’t have assistance with pet care should avoid cuddles and kisses and are advised to wear a cloth mask and wash their hands before and after contact with their pets.

Private practices and hospitals are taking special precautions to protect animal and human health if a pet requires veterinary care during the pandemic, said Roger Fingland, executive associate dean and chief medical officer of the college.

The first thing pet owners should do, even in an emergency, is make a phone call to their veterinarian, Fingland said. Some veterinarians with existing relationships with their clients may be able to give advice via telemedicine.

If a pet requires in-person care or hospitalization, pet owners should expect curbside drop-offs and pickups of their animals and frequent phone, email or text contact about a care plan. Visitation generally isn’t allowed except in end-of-life cases.

“Veterinarians are seeing mostly urgent and emergent cases,” Fingland said. “Very few elective procedures are being done. That’s to save PPE (personal protective equipment) for human use.”

Ideally, pet owners should be able to pull together a quarantine kit of food and medication if two weeks of isolation are required. Recommended supplies, as well as information updates as conditions change during the pandemic, are available on the college’s website.

College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Rustin Moore noted that about three-fourths of American households have pets and that during difficult times, the love and companionship of a pet can make a real difference in human health.

“Interacting with a pet has been shown through scientific evidence to have positive benefits on the physical and mental well-being of people,” Moore said. “Petting, snuggling, cuddling and looking into the eyes of a pet has been shown to lead to physiological changes in the human body.

“Ninety percent of us who have pets consider them as part of our family. They should be treated as such during COVID-19.”

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