In this Nov. 8, 2021, file photo, a woman carries a cat in her bag as she goes shopping in a store in Moscow, Russia. Credit: Pavel Golovkin / AP

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — As omicron sweeps through households in Florida, more pet owners are reporting their dogs or cats show signs of coronavirus.

While COVID-19 in pets is a rare occurrence, veterinarians now know it can happen. Pets worldwide, including cats and dogs, have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, mostly after close contact with people with COVID-19.

One manufacturer of a COVID PCR test for pets, IDEXX Laboratories, has tested over 5,000 specimens collected from dogs, cats and horses who had respiratory illnesses. The tests confirmed more than three dozen cases of COVID in a dog or cat during the pandemic. The animals most often were in a household where humans had the virus.

Unlike the proliferation of at-home kits for humans, the COVID test for pets is a nasal or throat swab that must be ordered and conducted by a veterinarian.

Florida veterinarians treat symptoms

Dr. Alison Birken of Victoria Park Animal Hospital in Fort Lauderdale said if a dog or cat comes into her office with symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting and someone in the household has had COVID, she is treating the symptoms rather than testing the animal for the virus.

“It is not common for dogs and cats to contract COVID from humans and if they do the signs are mild,” she said.

Cats are more susceptible than dogs, and more likely to get COVID from their owners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some cats who have tested positive for COVID became ill with respiratory and breathing problems, and one cat also had vomiting and diarrhea, according to veterinarians with VCA Animal Hospitals.

Large cats, particularly tigers and lions, have also been affected by the virus. An outbreak at the Bronx Zoo in New York State, likely due to an infected zookeeper, resulted in 4 tigers and 3 lions with coughs and respiratory problems. Another outbreak in Malayan tigers occurred at Zoo Knoxville, Tennessee.

Rodents have had coronavirus too. Last week, Hong Kong announced a cull of more than 1,000 pet hamsters and the quarantining of their owners in response to fears that coronavirus had been transmitted from the pets to people. COVID cases also have been confirmed in mink, ferrets, gorillas, snow leopards and cougars.

What research shows

Researchers at Texas A&M University sampled more than 580 pets living in homes where at least one person was infected and found that 100 of the animals were infected too. Only about a quarter of those infected had signs and they were mild.

“Infected people who share space with their pets can infect their pets, just as humans can infect other people,” said Sarah Hamer, a lead researcher with Texas A & M examining how COVID-19 is impacting pets.

With omicron highly infectious, social media is filled with posts from pet owners convinced their dog or cat has the virus.

Wellington veterinarian, Dr. Mark Planco, said he has only seen one dog with upper respiratory illness after his owners tested positive. Because the symptoms were mild, the dog was not tested and recovered on his own.

“COVID testing mostly is occurring in farm settings where the virus could lead to large losses,” Planco said. “Right now the susceptibility is low for pets. We could end up with mutation that is more capable of infecting dogs and cats but so far I haven’t seen it,” he said.

The CDC said a dog or cat with COVID would show these symptoms: fever, cough, difficulty breathing, sluggishness, sneezing, runny nose, loss of appetite, eye discharge, vomiting and diarrhea.

With omicron still infecting people in Florida, veterinarians say if you have COVID, you can take steps to prevent your cat or dog from getting the virus, too: Avoid contact with your pet including petting snuggling, being kissed or licked, sharing food, and sleeping in the same bed. And, wear a mask and wash your hands before and after you interact with your pet.

Dr. Lori Teller, a veterinarian and clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said pet owners do not need to be overly concerned. “A few hundred dogs and cats have tested positive compared to millions of people.” She said there is no research that indicates pets can pass on COVID to each other.

If your dog or cat shows signs, veterinarians say they would first test them for common respiratory diseases most common to them, before ordering a COVID test. Teller said veterinarians would treat the symptoms by recommending your pet gets lots of rest and fluids, and if needed, anti-inflammatory or fever-reducing medications.

Teller said no one knows why some dogs and cats get COVID. “That’s the question of the hour. It’s likely those animals have co-morbidities like diabetes or heart disease are at risk. The same co-morbidities that put humans at higher risk.”

“The best way to protect your pet is to protect yourself,” she said.

Story by Cindy Krischer Goodman, South Florida Sun Sentinel.