Some species of livestock have their own forms of a coronavirus, but none are COVID-19. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

Earlier this month officials at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife confirmed they are monitoring studies of cases of COVID-19 confirmed in deer in other states. 

But there is no evidence domestic ruminant livestock are at risk of contracting the disease.

Ruminant animals are ones that chew and regurgitate their food more than once and digest it multiple times in separate stomachs. These include livestock animals such as cattle, sheep and goats. Instead of one stomach, they have four.

Despite this similarity between some livestock and deer, there has yet to be a reported case of COVID-19 among livestock or domestic poultry. But that doesn’t mean that livestock are immune to all coronaviruses — in fact, farm animals have been coping with coronavirus infections long before the current pandemic began.

“Some livestock, including pigs, cattle, horses and poultry have their own coronaviruses that cause some disease in their host but aren’t risky to people,” according to Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine veterinary diagnostic laboratory.

Those coronaviruses include transmissible gastroenteritis virus and porcine respiratory coronavirus of swine, infectious bronchitis virus of poultry and equine and bovine coronavirus.

“These coronaviruses aren’t the same as COVID-19,” Lichtenwalner said. “We have livestock vaccines against some of them.”

While the  United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported cases of animals around the world infected with COVID-19, none of these cases included livestock or domestic poultry and there is no evidence that farm animals are at risk for the disease.

“Emerging research demonstrates that some animals can be experimentally infected with COVID-19,” Lichtenwalner said. “This is important to know, since medical research is important to understand things like pathogenesis, viral shedding, and vaccine efficacy and sometimes studies animal models of diseases.”

It’s important to keep in mind that just because animals can be infected with a disease like COVID-19 in a controlled, laboratory setting, it doesn’t mean the species can contract it in the natural world or transmit it to other animals or people, Lichtenwalner said.

In some cases, the opposite is true when it comes to COVID-19.

“By far, the evidence supports that we can spread COVID-19 to animals but not the opposite,” according to Lichtenwalner. “Some of them can become seriously ill [and] the most notable recent cases include snow leopards in a Nebraska zoo.”

When it comes to livestock, according to the CDC, the animals are not at risk of getting COVID-19 from humans. However, being around livestock can create a potential human COVID-19 risk. That’s because the virus is highly contagious between people and anytime farm animals bring people together there is a very real risk of spreading the disease if CDC recommendations are not properly followed. These include wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

“As we understand more about COVID-19, we should remember what we already know, there are pathogens of many types surrounding us,” Lichtenwalner said. “On the positive side, we have several important tools at our disposal to avoid them.”

These tools include basic hygiene like hand washing and practicing good habits to keep your immune system strong.

“Use common sense,” she said. “If you are ill, keep some distance between yourself and other people, and animals, including your pets.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.