Can My Pet Give Me Coronavirus? (And Other Questions)

We spoke with two locals—a veterinarian and a mental health professional—to get the lowdown on pets and your health.
pets and coronavirus

If you have pets, you probably can’t imagine life without them. From companionship to unconditional love, pets are there for you, man. You know they can make you live a happier, more enriched life. But can they transmit diseases? How serious are those bites and scratches? What is considered OK, or normal, when it comes to grieving over a pet? We asked local experts to weigh in on some common pet-related health questions.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Can your pet transmit coronavirus?

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does have some cases of cats and ferrets getting it from us, but there is no evidence of us getting it from them,” says Ilana Halperin, DVM, a health sciences assistant clinical professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “If you have symptoms, try to limit contact with your pet,” she says. The findings are similar when it comes to the common cold and flu. “Animals do have their own forms of flu and upper respiratory infections, but we cannot get it from them,” Halperin says, adding that for the most part we can’t give it to them, either. (The culprits, not surprisingly, are other animals.) “There is some evidence that some strains of a cold we can give to a cat or a ferret, but it’s really low risk.”

Good to know: There’s no need to give your furry friend away to a shelter to protect yourself from COVID-19 or other illnesses, but do take care if you start exhibiting symptoms yourself.

Is cat scratch fever a real thing or just the name of a Ted Nugent song?

According to Halperin, cat scratch fever (also commonly referred to as cat scratch disease) is caused by Bartonella henselae, a bacterium that cats get from fleas. Once a cat is infected, the bacterium stays on its nails and teeth and can be transmitted to humans by scratching or if the cat licks your open wound or a hangnail. Symptoms include fever, headache and swollen lymph nodes and are most serious for those who are immunocompromised. Kittens have a higher propensity to be transmitters because they haven’t yet learned not to use their claws when playing, says Halperin. Most cat scratches will not result in cat scratch disease, according to the CDC, and, if contracted, the disease will most often resolve on its own. However, if you are scratched by a cat or it licks an open wound or hangnail, Halperin recommends flushing out the area with soap and water. If symptoms develop or if you are immunocompromised, see a doctor for antibiotics.

What to do: Keep up to date with flea medication protocols, even if your cat is indoor only; make sure your kitty gets regular “pawdicures” to trim those nails; cover up open wounds and take care of those hangnails; and train your kitten to play gently.

When the dog (or cat) bites, when the bee stings . . .

Both dog and cat bites should be checked out to see if there is a bacterial infection, especially if the skin is broken, according to Halperin. Cat bites are more known for causing bacterial infections, but if the dog or cat has rabies, you’ll want to treat that, she says. “If you don’t know if they have been vaccinated, definitely let your doctor know immediately,” she says. Also, big dogs with strong jaws can cause damage to the bone. Halperin says your extremities (hands and feet) and lower legs are more prone to infection. “They might not have as good of blood flow, so an infection can get worse in those areas,” she says. Protocol is the same as cat scratches: Flush out the wound and consider seeing a doctor.

For the record: According to the CDC (we’ve heard a lot from these guys lately, haven’t we?), if a bee stings you, remove the stinger right away, wash the area with soap and water, and apply a cold compress. If you have a known allergy or if you start to see swelling, have difficulty breathing or feel nauseated, see a doctor.

Reason #553 to clean the cat box daily—and to wear gloves

Cats may excrete a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii in their feces—especially if they kill and eat birds and mice, according to Halperin. “The cats pass the organism shortly after they get infected, about a week, but the problem is we don’t know when they become infected, and they don’t always show symptoms,” she says. The parasite is most harmful if you let the feces sit a few days. The resulting disease, toxoplasmosis, is benign in most healthy people but can be harmful to fetuses or those who are immunocompromised. However, you can take some easy steps to avoid toxoplasmosis. “If you clean the litter box every day and wear gloves, it is relatively safe. But if a pregnant woman touches the feces, it could be harmful to the fetus,” she says. If you are pregnant or otherwise immunocompromised, take extra care and wear gloves when changing your cat’s litter box and wash your hands afterward. Of course, if you want to use this as an excuse to slough the litter box duty off to someone else, we’re not going to judge.

The down-and-dirty facts: The Toxoplasma gondii parasite does not stay on the cat once it is excreted, so you are you are safe to cohabitate with your feline companions. However, keep your domesticated felines away from birds and mice to cut down on their risk of contracting the parasite. Indulge their hunting instincts with a toy instead.

Can pets help us reduce anxiety and fight depression? Yes, but . . .

“Pets are very present. They are focused on the here and now, and that is the best management strategy for anxiety and depression,” says Delia Quinley, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Elk Grove and co-owner of M&D Quinley Professional Services, which offers counseling for individual clients as one of its services.

However, for those dealing with depression, Quinley is quick to point out that while a pet may be helpful, it is not a substitute treatment for moderate to serious depression or anxiety. “It can be a treatment tool, though use of pets in the management of moderate to severe symptoms has to be used with the help of a mental health professional,” she says.

Bottom line: A cherished pet can be a source of great comfort during trying times, but don’t let it stop you from seeking appropriate help.

Mourning the loss of a pet? You’re normal and there’s help.

Acknowledging your grief and moving through it—on your own timeframe—is important, say experts.

“Validate and honor the fact that you are going to go through it and you don’t have to rush,” says Halperin about grief. “The key is honoring your feelings even if they don’t match what someone else expects.”

Halperin notes that grief is often compounded by the decision to euthanize your pet. “There can be pressure, guilt, problems with the family,” she says. “It can have a really profound effect on people.”

According to Quinley, not dealing with the grief could be detrimental to you. “The thing with grief and loss is that, if these emotions are not dealt with or do not have an appropriate outlet, they get manifested in other areas. People may get physically sick or experience depression or anxiety.”

Both Quinley and Halperin advise seeking help if needed.

“Each person grieves differently, and as a professional you want to support that person based on their own individual grief process,” says Quinley.

“It can be really life altering,” says Halperin. “We [UC Davis] have a pet-loss support group where people can reach out and get support that way. We also have a grief counselor on staff at the teaching hospital.”

In summary: Ignore the dolts who tell you to “just get another dog” or similarly unhelpful advice. Instead, grieve on your own timeline, look for online or in-person support groups, and don’t be reluctant to seek professional help if needed.

Are there instances where a pet can be detrimental to your health?

Quinley cautions people to consider the responsibility involved before they commit to a pet. “Owning a pet is a very big responsibility. If this is your first pet, it can be overwhelming. It can easily become a source of frustration rather than a calming presence. ‘I have to walk the dog.’ ‘I have to take them to the vet.’ It can become another source of stress to those who are unprepared for pet ownership,” she says, adding that you do not necessarily have to own a pet to enjoy one. “One may consider volunteering at an animal shelter or may spend some time with a neighbor’s pet.”

She also advises people to be mindful of the type of pet they select. Your overall household—or even health—should be considered when choosing a pet, she says. “Smaller kids who are still learning appropriate boundaries may trigger pet aggression, especially in dogs. Or a very active pet may be unsafe for someone who may be frail, such as an elderly person,” Quinley says. “People generally get excited to own pets—they’re cute, they’re cuddly, they need companionship. But they need to do their research.”

Wrapping up: Animals can be wonderful sources of companionship, but they are living creatures with very specific needs and personalities. Know what you are getting into before you bring one into your life.


Animals Gone Wild

Two local pet lovers recall traumatic animal encounters

Dianne McFarland grew up with animals—cats, chickens, ducks. “We always had a cat in the house,” she says. When she was a young teen, the family brought an older, feral kitten into the house in the hopes of domesticating it. One afternoon, McFarland, home alone, picked up the cat, which turned out to be a big mistake.

“As I was holding it, it started attacking me,” McFarland recalls. “His whole head was striking at me.” The cat bit her left ring finger and her shoulder, cutting through her sweatshirt in the process. “I was in shock, literal shock. It was like I had been in a car accident. That type of shock,” she says. When McFarland’s parents returned home, they took her to the emergency room, where she was treated with antibiotics. Had she waited any longer, doctors said, her hand would have been forever immobilized—“like a claw,” McFarland says—due to the infection. “The incident itself was pretty traumatic,” she says. However, it did not squelch her lifelong love of cats.

“I’ve had cats all my life and I love them,” says McFarland, who today shares her house with her husband, son and 17-year-old-cat, Dobie. “I just know not to mess with feral cats.”

Lisa Sorensen was out walking her 13-year-old German shepherd mix, Brita, when a pit bull down the street cut loose from its young owner and came charging toward them.

“The dog came flying and knocked my dog over and was gnawing away at her neck,” Sorensen says. As Sorensen tried to wrestle Brita free, the pit dragged her down, causing road burn on her knees and wrists, and bit her hand. Unsure of the dog’s vaccination history, Sorensen underwent a series of rabies shots.

Brita’s injuries, combined with her age, proved too much for the dog, so Sorensen and her husband decided to put the dog down a few days after the attack.

Sorensen was so traumatized by the incident she sought the aid of a therapist, her first time ever. One thing she knew, she would get another dog. “I’ve never been dogless,” she says. When she and her husband adopted Lily, a black Lab mix, Sorensen had to face her fears while walking the dog. “It was hard, but I just pushed through it. I pushed through and it faded with time,” she says, admitting she looked for escape routes while walking Lily in case another dog came charging their way. Sorensen says it took about year before the fear went away.

Despite the ordeal, Sorensen says she holds no animosity toward pit bulls, especially ones she sees in shelters. “I feel so bad for these dogs, but I don’t want to own one.”