Scientists Scanning Household Pets for COVID-19

By JoNel Aleccia, Kaiser Health News

Wednesday, November 4, 2020 (Kaiser News) – As cases of COVID-19 increase in the United States, a Texas veterinarian has quietly followed the spread of the disease – not in humans, but in their pets.

Since June, Dr. Sarah Hamer and her team at Texas A&M University have tested hundreds of animals from households in the area where humans have contracted COVID-19. They cleaned dogs and cats, of course, but also hamsters and guinea pigs, looking for signs of infection. “We’re open to all of this,” said Hamer, a professor of epidemiology, who has found at least 19 cases of infection.

One animal that tested positive was Phoenix, a 7-year-old partially Siamese cat owned by Kaitlyn Romoser, who works in a university lab. Romoser, 23, has been confirmed to have COVID-19 twice, once in March and again in September. The second time around, she was much sicker, she says, and Phoenix was her constant companion.

“If I had known the animals had him everywhere, I would have tried to distance myself, but he won’t move away from me,” Romoser said. “He sleeps in my bed with me. There was absolutely no social distancing.

Across the country, veterinarians and other researchers are scouring the animal kingdom for signs of the virus that causes COVID-19. At least 2,000 animals in the United States have been tested for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to federal records. Cats and dogs exposed to sick owners account for most of the animals tested and 80% of positive cases found.

But scientists have cast a wide net to investigate other animals that may be at risk. In states from California to Florida, researchers have tested species ranging from farmed mink and zoo cats to unexpected creatures like dolphins, armadillos and anteaters.

The US Department of Agriculture keeps an official tally of confirmed cases of animal COVID which stands at several dozen. But this list is a vast undercount of actual infections. In Utah and Wisconsin, for example, more than 14,000 mink have died in recent weeks after contracting COVID infections initially spread by humans.

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