Animal Services' Role in COVID-19 Support
Note: This is a dynamic situation and information will be updated as new information is available. Last updated March 27, 2020.
This entire document and some individual chapters are available for download as PDFs at the bottom of this information sheet.
- Coronaviruses and Pets
- Animal Services and COVID-19
- NACA recommended Animal Services functions and practices during COVID-19 emergency
- Limiting non-essential surgeries in shelter and spay-neuter clinics
- Transport and movement of animals during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Temporary sheltering of pets exposed to COVID-19
- Sample Protocol for intake of pets from households where humans with coronavirus are present
Coronaviruses are a family of enveloped RNA viruses. Because of the envelope, these viruses are readily inactivated by nearly all commonly found disinfectants. No special disinfection chemical or process is required. As always, mechanical cleaning is an important first step in sanitation to remove pathogens from the environment.
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) some strains of coronaviruses are zoonotic, but many are not. Canine and feline coronaviruses currently in circulation are well described and are not zoonotic.
COVID-19 infection results from human to human transmission with a coronavirus known as SARS CoV-2. While three recent reports from Belgium and Hong Kong (1 cat and 2 dogs respectively) describe transmission from humans to their pets, at this point there is no evidence that companion animals can be a source of infection to humans or animals. For more details on pets that have tested positive please visit the "SARS-CoV-2 and domestic animals, including pets" section of the COVID-19 page on the AVMA’s website.
The CDC states that transmission is thought to be primarily between people in close contact through respiratory droplets (coughing, sneezing). Transmission of the virus from a contaminated surface is possible but not thought to be the primary way the virus is spread.
The WHO, OEI, and CDC continue to recommend that pets stay with their people and that people who are sick or infected limit contact with their pets. People who are sick or under medical attention for COVID-19 should avoid close contact with their pets and have another member of their household care for their animals. If they must look after their pet, they should maintain good hygiene practices and wear a face mask if possible.
According to OIE, “it is important that COVID-19 does not lead to inappropriate measures being taken against domestic or wild animals which might compromise their welfare and health or have a negative impact on biodiversity.”
Primary learning points
- The primary risk of transmission to humans remains other humans.
- Evidence suggests some companion animals can be infected from close contact with a human sick with COVID-19.
- There is no current evidence to suggest that pets play a role in the spread of this human disease.
- The WHO, OEI, and CDC continue to recommend that pets stay with their people and that people who are sick or infected limit contact with their pets.
This information highlights the need for more information that could be gathered from testing and suggests the importance of good intake, husbandry, and separation practices for shelters admitting animals who have had close contact with humans who have been infected. The decision to test will be made collaboratively between local, state, and federal animal and public health officials
Please contact UW Shelter Medicine at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are a shelter admitting animals that have had close, known exposure to people with confirmed infections. Limited diagnostic testing may be available.
In preparation for an increase in COVID-19 cases and the hospitalization of people with severe disease, animal service agencies are collaborating with public health departments to support the animals of persons who require hospitalization. For people that do not have family or friends that can care for their pets during their hospitalization, animal service support may include temporary sheltering of their pets. For people who may need to self-isolate or are quarantined after exposure to an infected individual, animal service agencies are working to support the co-housing of people with their pets in their homes or in temporary emergency housing.
Co-housing people with their pets whenever possible has a three-fold impact. First, previous disasters demonstrated that pets are integral family members and people will place themselves at significant risk rather than be separated from their animals. Compliance with important recommendations, including disclosure of symptoms or exposure to an infected person, may be compromised if people believe they may be separated from their pets when isolated or quarantined.
Second, pets have a beneficial impact on human health, providing companionship and reducing anxiety. Isolation and quarantine are extremely stressful with uncertainty, fear and anger that may be exacerbated by social isolation. Reducing stress by keeping families together, including a family’s pets, is important to maintaining the health of both the people and their animals.
Third, animal shelters could quickly become overwhelmed unless they limit their services to those who truly cannot care for their pets. Bringing in large numbers of animals would stretch capacity and resources to the point where adequate care could no longer be ensured. The possibility of a crisis in the human health care system because of a rapid influx of patients beyond the capacity to provide care is very real at this time. Avoiding a parallel crisis in animal welfare is essential to protect community health and is in the best interest of all the individuals, humans and animals, involved.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association, WSAVA, has compiled information from global authorities on the current understanding of the role of companion animals and COVID-19. There is no current evidence that companion animals are a source of infection to people.
For more information visit WSAVA's information page:
Current recommendations from the CDC include washing hands before and after interacting with pets if ill. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/about/steps-when-sick.html
University of Wisconsin-Madison Shelter Medicine Program, University of California-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, Dr. Jeanette O’Quin of The Ohio State University, and the Association of Shelter Veterinarians wholeheartedly support and recommend animal control agencies and animal shelters follow the recommendations found in the recently released statements from the National Animal Care & Control Association (NACA) during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 carries the possibility of creating a significant animal welfare crisis in shelters experiencing reduced capacity for care due to staffing shortages, the need for social distancing, and reduced outcome opportunities via adoption, foster or rescue.
In an effort to mitigate the short and long-term effects of this pandemic, we encourage animal control agencies and shelters to implement the NACA recommendations beginning immediately.
NACA’s statements incorporate the following key recommendations:
- Animal control agencies should take active measures to eliminate non-essential shelter intake.
- Discontinue low priority/non-emergency activity (non-aggressive stray animal pick-up, nuisance complaints, etc.).
- At this time, continue to respond to emergency and high priority calls (law enforcement assistance, injured or sick stray animals, bite and dangerous dog complaints, etc.).
- To preserve critical medical supplies and minimize potential for human contact exposure, shelters and spay-neuter clinics should limit surgeries to emergency cases only.
Importantly, NACA notes that “shelters should continue providing live outcomes for sheltered cats and dogs. The lack of immediately available spay and neuter services should not be a reason for shelter euthanasia. Further, anticipated personnel and supply resource depletion in shelters dictate that essential services and lifesaving capacity be preserved by reducing the number of animals in custody as quickly as possible. This should be done by expediting the movement of animals to adoptive or foster homes and not extending the stay of animals in the shelter for spay or neuter surgery.”
A recommendation to limit “non-essential” or “elective” surgical procedures has been made by the U.S. Surgeon General. While the American Hospital Association has responded to this recommendation by noting it is important for doctors and hospitals to be able to make decisions about prioritized care independently, many hospitals including some hospitals for children have already announced their intention to comply. All health care professionals need to adopt strategies that will allow them to conserve PPE as much as possible, including veterinarians. Veterinary medicine is part of the overall health care umbrella we have in the United States. The AVMA recently stated that veterinary practices can and should defer elective procedures to preserve medical supplies when circumstances call for that but also must be able to provide medically necessary care.
For the purpose of these recommendations a non-emergency (“elective” or “non-essential”) surgical procedure is one that is not urgently required in order to maintain the health of the patient. Most spays and neuters, even pre-adoption, are non-emergency procedures.
Conservation of PPE is not the only reason to defer non-emergency surgeries. Either currently or in the next several weeks it is expected that shelters will experience:
- Reduced staffing in shelters as staff and volunteers become ill or need to quarantine. If the number of animals in shelters does not also decrease dramatically a crisis of care may develop with insufficient capacity and supplies to care for the animals in the shelter.
- Continued need for veterinary care for animals with reduced veterinary capacity
- Scarcity of medical equipment and supplies
- Need to limit contact between people in an effort to reduce human exposure
Given the current pandemic, in an effort to reduce resource use, workload, and the potential for human exposure, shelters and spay-neuter clinics should make decisions about which spay-neuter surgeries and other procedures are non-emergency procedures and discontinue those that could be deferred. The simplest pathway to continuing adoptions and other placements while deferring those surgeries may vary by organization. Adopting with vouchers to return for surgery when the pandemic has resolved or utilizing foster to adoption programs where laws require surgery prior to adoption, will help to avert adding animal welfare crises to the current human crisis by keeping animals moving through the shelter. Euthanasia should not be utilized as an alternative to releasing animals to adopters/foster unsterilized. For some animals, spay or neuter surgery prior to adoption or foster may be deemed essential either to encourage placement, support the human-animal bond, or be in the best interest of the animal (e.g., pyometra).
Please watch this short interview with Dr. Sandra Newbury and Dr. Julie Levy to hear directly from the experts on this issue.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison Shelter Medicine Program, University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, Cornell Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program, The Association for Advancement of Animal Welfare and Humane Canada endorse the following statement and recommendations for animal movement by shelters, agencies and rescues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every exception to social distancing decreases its efficacy.
Social distancing is the current strategy our nations has chosen to combat COVID 19. The hope is that by implementing social distancing we can avoid the collapse of our health care system in the short run by slowing the spread of disease and decreasing the rate of human patients in need of hospitalization and critical care. Our health care workers are putting themselves at great risk trying to care for the thousands of infected individuals presenting to hospitals each day. Social distancing puts our nations at substantial economic risk but has the intention of saving perhaps millions of human lives. Decreasing the efficacy of social distancing puts us all at risk of failing with our intervention to control disease while also jeopardizing our economy. The more stringent we are in our efforts at social distancing, the more likely the constraints on our activities will be released quickly and the fewer human and animal lives are likely to be lost.
While we have all invested our lives in preventing the loss of animal lives, we are called now to protect human life as well as animal lives, which means finding new ways to prevent euthanasia and promote care for animals in need. The key request coming from our governments and health advisors is for people to stay at home and limit travel.
Travel includes transport of animals from one community to another. While this type of animal movement has been an important approach to lifesaving for many organizations, continuing to transport animals increases the risk to human lives.
Travel for transport outside the immediate community of each shelter should be discontinued.
As an alternative, transfer between shelters in the same community and delivery for foster care or adoption is encouraged because it promotes live releases while maintaining recommended social distancing guidelines.
Be respectful of #safeathome orders in each state and municipality. While shelters and clinics have been identified as essential organizations, not every service or function of a shelter is essential. It is our obligation to reduce our activities.
When intake is decreased to emergencies only, the capacity to find a lifesaving outcome within the community is increased. This is why it is so essential to follow NACA guidelines for intake reduction and call response.
Consistent with active measures being taken to eliminate non-essential shelter intake, every effort should be made to allow companion animals to continue to co-habitate with their family when possible. If temporary sheltering becomes necessary, the following guidelines are provided to ensure coordination with the appropriate public health and animal health officials and to minimize infection risk to shelter staff and volunteers.
The greatest risk of COVID-19 exposure to staff, volunteers and the public at animal shelters comes not from animals, but from other humans. Interventions to reduce risk of COVID-19 infection are the same at an animal shelter as in other aspects of daily life.
Protocols specific to protecting staff when in high risk situations, such as entering an infected person’s home or coming into proximity with a sick person, should be consistent with the most up to date guidance from state and federal public health authorities including CDC. For the most up to date guidance, visit your State’s Department of Health website and CDC’s COVID-19 website.
Limitations – there are many things that are currently unknown about this virus and the risk it poses to pets and from pets to humans. It is worth reiterating that the greatest risk to humans is from transmission between humans.
- It is unknown if companion animals can transmit the virus- to humans or one another.
- Diagnostic testing for pets is not readily available at this time which limits the ability to assess risk and make recommendations for preventive measures.
Research is ongoing and intensive efforts to better understand the virus are currently underway. Diagnostic testing is a critical part of this.
Sample Protocol for shelter intake of pets from households where humans with coronavirus are present
- In anticipation of an animal service agency being requested to assist with collection of one or more companion animals from the home of a person with known or suspected COVID-19, agencies should work closely with their public health department including the state public health veterinarian or designated health official to plan including minimizing the risk to staff.
- Whenever possible, entry into the home where a person with COVID-19 lived should be avoided in order to prevent person-to-person transmission; additionally, companion animals should be collected by animal services staff with minimal contact with people living in the home including those who are ill; this includes remaining a minimum of 6 feet away from other people when possible.
- In order to reduce risk to animal services staff who might be interacting with people from COVID-19 infected households or exposed to home environments that might be contaminated with the virus, public health officials may recommend personal protective equipment (PPE) and provide training in the proper use of such equipment. Also see section 5a PPE.
- For details on potential precautions, refer to AVMA Considerations for Mobile and House Call Veterinarians during the COVID-19 pandemic
- As with any new shelter intake, gloves and gowns or coveralls should be worn while doing intake exams and treatments.
- Gloves and gowns or coveralls are a good infection prevention control practice generally and continue to be important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gowns or coveralls do not need to be single use and can be laundered and re-used (see section on PPE below).
- Hands should always be washed with soap and water including after gloves are removed and discarded.
- The animal intake area as well as materials in animal areas such as food and water bowls and bedding should be routinely cleaned and sanitized.
- There is no need to bathe an animal because of COVID-19 concerns; At this time, there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can spread to people from the skin or fur of pets.
- Refer to the Compendium of Veterinary Standard Precautions for Zoonotic Disease Prevention in Veterinary Personnel by NASPHV for additional details on standard protocols for biosafety.
- Animal housing plans for the shelter should be made for companion animals that were exposed to a person with known or suspected COVID-19 infection or a known high-risk environment. Until more information is known, it is recommended that these animals be housed in an area separate from the rest of the shelter population, preferably in double-sided housing that is spot cleaned as needed when soiled.
- Animals exposed to COVID-19 should be separated from the general animal population during the animal’s stay in the shelter due to the unknown risks associated with this rapidly evolving emerging infectious disease. While there is no reason at this time to think that any animals, including companion animals, in the United States, might be a source of infection with this new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it is prudent to keep companion animals that came from households where a person was infected with COVID-19 separated from the general shelter population out of an abundance of caution to protect both human and animal health.
- For animals needing temporary sheltering that are owned by a hospitalized person who did not have alternative pet care, the companion animal can be returned to the persons home as soon as the person is released from the hospital and is well enough to care for the pet again. There is no current reason to believe that releasing an exposed companion animal back to the household that was the animal’s original source of exposure would increase the risk to people. Every effort should be made to promptly reunite companion animals with their owners.
- Animals with a COVID-19 exposure that need to be adopted or sent to a foster home should be kept in a separate area of the shelter for 14 days out of an abundance of caution before leaving the shelter.
- Animal handling should address human health, animal health, and animal welfare needs.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Current shortages in commercially available PPE are causing a crisis due to the overwhelming need in the human healthcare field.
- Refer to Guidelines for use of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic when demand exceeds supply from CDC, FDA mask, gown, and glove, and AVMA.
- While there is currently no evidence to date of companion animals spreading COVID-19, routine PPE use should follow basic infection control standards since companion animals are able to transmit other zoonotic pathogens.
- In the event a companion animal exposed to COVID-19 become sick, close contact between the animal and caretakers should be avoided. See 9 and 10
- The use of protective clothing, such as gowns or coveralls, that can be laundered, and dedicated footwear is an alternative that may be preferable to preserve disposable PPE. The use of gloves to limit exposure is also recommended.
- Washing hands with soap and water after handling animals is always recommended. Hand washing should also be done right after removing gloves.
- Dogs should be walked outside for elimination and exercise but direct contact with other animals should be avoided.c. Dogs should be walked outside for elimination and exercise but direct contact with other companion animals should be avoided as a best practice to protect animal health. Feces should be collected and disposed of immediately. Ideally, dogs should be walked in an area that can be readily sanitized in a dedicated area separate from the general animal population.
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- Routine cleaning and sanitation is important in animal areas. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses. Coronaviruses are readily inactivated by disinfectants typically used in animal shelters, including accelerated hydrogen peroxide at concentrations used for other more common shelter pathogens (e.g. 1:64 (2 oz/gallon) for 5 minutes for coronaviruses, 1:32 (4 oz/ gallon) for 10 min. for parvoviruses). Normal cleaning and disinfection protocols for both animal housing and common areas used in shelters are sufficient. Increased sanitation of surfaces frequently touched by people (e.g. light switches and door knobs) is recommended to reduce exposure to/from humans.
- Refer to EPA and CDC disinfection protocols written for households for some guidance on coronavirus disinfection, while still being aware of potentially more stringent requirements for sanitation of unenveloped virus animal pathogens in shelters.
- Disinfectants licensed by the EPA must be used in accordance with their label directions. Many disinfectants have the potential to cause significant harm if direct contact with human or animal skin occurs. It is inappropriate (and potentially illegal if not labeled accordingly) to apply liquid disinfectants directly onto animals.
- If a companion animal that has had close contact with a person suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 develops an unexplained illness during their shelter stay, animal shelter staff should work with appropriate public health or animal health authorities to determine whether testing for COVID-19 (see #9) and further precautions are warranted. Existing biosecurity and infection prevention control protocols should be adhered to in this event.
- Neither the CDC, USDA, nor AVMA recommends that companion animals be routinely tested for COVID-19 at this time. Companion animals presenting with illness or injury should receive veterinary care. Where appropriate, testing for infectious diseases that commonly cause companion animal illness should be conducted. If staff observe a new, concerning illness that cannot be otherwise explained, and the companion animal has had close contact with a person with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection, the supervising veterinarian should contact the state public health veterinarian or designated health official to discuss whether or not there is a need to test that animal for COVID-19. Some jurisdictions do not have state public health veterinarians, or geographic, resource, or time limitations may prevent a public health veterinarian from managing a situation involving shelter animals.
General information relevant to COVID-19 and companion animals is provided at the following links:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 Response: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
- CDC Animals and COVID-19: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/animals.html
- American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): https://www.avma.org/coronavirus
- World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA): https://wsava.org/news/highlighted-news/the-new-coronavirus-and-companion-animals-advice-for-wsava-members/
- National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV) Compendium of Veterinary Standard Precautsions for Zoonotic Disease Prevention in Veterinary Personnel: http://www.nasphv.org/documentsCompendiaVet.html
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus
- World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) Questions and Answers on COVID-19: https://www.oie.int/en/scientific-expertise/specific-information-and-recommendations/questions-and-answers-on-2019novel-coronavirus/