Mink believed to have infected farmworker with COVID-19 — can pets do the same?

WATCH: Here are 4 things we know about animals contracting COVID-19

A mink is believed to have infected a farmworker in the Netherlands with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Dutch officials said.

In a government statement published Tuesday, new findings suggest a person who worked on a farm where mink are bred to export their fur contracted the virus from the animals. Outbreaks on mink farms in the Netherlands were first reported in April, when keepers noticed some animals having difficulty breathing, prompting a wider investigation.

“The investigation has also shown that mink with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic,” the statement said.

But minks aren’t the only animals affected by the coronavirus.

Since the virus emerged, there have been reports of animals testing positive for the coronavirus across the world, including dogs, ferrets, cats and several tigers and lions in a New York City zoo.

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The animal outbreaks have caused some pet owners to be concerned around coronavirus transmission, and wonder: Can I get my pet sick, or can my pet get me sick?

“It’s an animal-origin virus, but it’s a human virus now,” said Scott Weese, a veterinary internal medicine specialist and professor at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College.

“So the transmission that we’re seeing is almost exclusively human-to-human, but there is some spillover back into animals.”

Is my pet at risk of COVID-19?

Weese, who is following COVID-19 cases in animals, said some domestic species, like cats, appear to be more susceptible to catching the virus than others. Dogs, for instance, seem to be more resistant to the disease.

Weese and other researchers are currently working on a study to figure out why some pets get infected with the novel coronavirus and others do not.

As with humans, Weese said, cats can be asymptomatic when infected, or have mild symptoms. From existing reports, it seems older cats or those with underlying health issues may be more affected.

While there is a lot still unknown when it comes to COVID-19 and animals, Weese said close contact is likely how the virus spreads between pet owners and certain pets.

Health Canada says pets are not the source of the virus, but are instead contracting the virus from people.

“It is still not clear how often this happens and under what circumstances,” the government agency says on its website.

“From the limited information available, it appears that some animals can get sick. A small number of laboratory studies suggest that cats, dogs, ferrets and hamsters can be infected with COVID-19.”

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But as with the suspected mink-to-human case, Weese said it does seem possible that animals can be the one to pass the virus onto humans and infect them.

“We know that cats can spread it cat-to-cat, so if a cat can spread it cat-to-cat, it seems logical that there could be a risk of cat-to-human,” he said.

Still, the risk of pet-to-human transmission appears to be very low, he said, but he can’t confidently say it’s zero.

How to protect pets from COVID-19

It’s important to note that pets that don’t leave the home are at lower risk of COVID-19, Weese said. An indoor cat, for example, would only possibly get the virus from an infected owner.

“The biggest thing (people) can do to protect their pet is to protect themselves,” he said. “If I take social distancing responsibly, then I’m protecting my animals at the same time.”

Outdoor animals, on the other hand, are at a bit higher risk, Weese said. It’s a good idea to limit their interaction with others to curb any possible spread — even if the risk is very low.

“We want to keep animals away from other people and other animals just so we don’t have to worry about (transmission),” he said.

Health Canada says if you or anyone in your household has COVID-19 or symptoms, it’s best to avoid close contact with animals. If this is the case, the agency says do not lick, snuggle or kiss pets, or share food with them. It’s also good to avoid having them sit on your lap or bed.

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If you’re looking after a pet that has possibly been exposed to COVID-19, it’s wise to take precautions, too.

“Pets are not thought to be playing an important role in the spread of this disease,” Health Canada says.

“However, if you are caring for a pet that has been exposed to someone with COVID-19, it is recommended that precautions (like handwashing) be taken for 14 days after the last possible exposure to the human case.”

— With a file from Reuters

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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