You’ve probably read about COVID-19 in cats and dogs. But what about small animals? Can your pocket pet get COVID-19? What does the virus look like in rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small animals? How can you protect your small pets–and yourself? Your questions answered here.
We already know that cats and dogs can contract SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. And recently we learned that lions and tigers can, too. Fortunately, these cases remain rare. Even more, fortunately, there appears to be very little chance that our pets can pass the virus to us.
Still, there’s a lot we don’t know about SARS-CoV-2 and our pets. What about small pets? If you get sick, can you pass the virus to your rabbit? Can you catch it from your guinea pig? How can you tell if your small pet’s sneeze is COVID-19 or another respiratory problem?
And, most importantly, how can you keep your small pets safe?
Can Small Pets Catch SARS-CoV-2?
The fact is, we just don’t know yet.
One preliminary report suggests that small pets such as guinea pigs, gerbils, and mice, stand a very low chance of contracting the virus. Rabbits and hamsters appear to have a medium risk — about the same as cats. So, in theory, it’s possible, but at this time it doesn’t seem very likely.
Does Human Interaction Increase the Risk to Pets?
So far, scientists have documented transmission of the virus from humans to cats, from cats to cats, and from humans to dogs.
If you’re sick, there is a chance that you could pass the virus on to your small pet. So it’s good to have an emergency plan in place so that your pet will be cared for in case you need to self-isolate.
If you do need to self-isolate, treat your pet like any other household member and isolate from them, as well.
Can the Virus Live on Animal Fur?
Viruses aren’t alive in the same way that bacteria are. They can’t replicate on their own. Instead, they replicate by invading cells and hijacking the reproductive capabilities of those cells.
But viruses can remain active on different surfaces. When a person touches those surfaces then touches their face, the virus can get inside that way.
SARS-CoV-2 can remain active on different surfaces for periods of time that vary from hours to days. At the time of this writing, there haven’t been any studies showing how long the virus can remain active on animal fur. And there have been no reported cases of transmission from handling pets.
But because animals can harbour numerous diseases that affect people, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling any pet. Wash thoroughly after cleaning up after your pet. And think twice about handling animals that are not yours.
Can Veterinarians Test Pets for COVID-19?
Yes and no. A test exists, however, it’s neither common nor easy to acquire.
If your pet is showing respiratory symptoms, do not take them to your veterinary surgery. Instead, contact your vet and wait for instructions.
Is There a Vaccine for Pets?
No. At this time, there is no vaccine for either humans or pets.
How Can I Protect My Pet from the Virus?
First things, first: social distancing. Your pet is a member of your household, so continue to care for them as normal, unless you’re self-isolating. But make sure to keep your pet at least two metres away from people and animals outside of your household.
What Does COVID-19 Look Like in Small Pets?
Again, we don’t really know.
If your small pet is showing signs of any respiratory problem, contact your vet immediately.
For rabbits, symptoms of respiratory problems can include:
- Nasal discharge
- Discharge around the eyes
- Congested-sounding breathing
- Sneezing or coughing
- Dirty face and paws (from rubbing at the nose while trying to clear it)
- An exaggerated sitting-up-straight posture with extended neck and head
- Loss of appetite
- Reduced activity
For guinea pigs, symptoms of respiratory problems can include:
- Wheezing or clicking
- Redness around the eyes
- Discharge around the eyes
- Nasal discharge
- A red or sore-looking nose (from rubbing a congested nose)
- Loss of appetite
- Reduced activity
Reducing your pet’s risk of all respiratory infections
Respiratory infections are common and can become serious. Fortunately, we know several ways to decrease your pet’s chance of getting sick.
First, stress lowers your pet’s immune defences. Reducing your pet’s stressors will reduce their chances of contracting any respiratory infection. Common causes of small animal stress include:
- Overcrowding. Make sure your pets have plenty of space to move around.
- Exposure. Small pets need hiding places and spaces to “getaway.”
- A dirty environment
- Loud noises
- Exposure to predators such as dogs, cats, foxes, birds of prey, and so on
- Boredom and frustration. Make sure your pet has plenty of boredom-busters.
In addition to being stressful, dirty bedding can expose your pets to bacteria that can cause respiratory infections. Make sure your pet has fresh, clean bedding at all times.
Contact with infected or potentially-infected animals can infect your pet as well. This may not be the best time to add to your menagerie. But if you do, make sure to observe proper quarantine procedures. For rabbits and guinea pigs, wait 30 days before introducing them to your existing family.
Your Small Pet’s Welfare During Lockdown
The biggest problems for all of us during lockdown are stress and boredom. These affect the immune system and general health. If your small pet is acting “off,” stress or boredom could be the problem.
First, know the signs
If your bunny is feeling stressed, it might:
- Thump its rear foot
- Groom itself excessively
- Act nervous or jumpy
- Refuse to eat
For guinea pigs, stress symptoms include:
- Baring teeth
- Hissing or chattering
- Poor appetite
- Sleeping a lot
- Nervousness and/or irritability
Simple stress-busting tips
Environmental stress is easy to identify and fix. Take a look at your pet’s home and ask yourself:
- Do all pets have enough room to run, jump, and move around?
- Does the environment provide opportunities for natural behaviours like digging, chewing, or jumping?
- Are there toys and other enrichment activities?
- Is your pet exposed to the sound, sight, or smell of predators like cats, dogs, foxes, etc.?
- Are there loud noises in your pet’s environment?
- Does your pet have a place to hide or “getaway”?
- Is your pet’s environment clean?
Making these small, simple adjustments to your pet’s environment can make a world of difference for their happiness.
Is it safe to keep pets outdoors during a lockdown?
Preliminary studies suggest that rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small pets have only a small chance of becoming infected by SARS-CoV-2. That infection happens as a result of close contact with humans or infected animals.
At this time, it appears that it is safe to keep your small pets outdoors, provided they do not come into contact with animals or people from outside your household.
A raised hutch can help to keep outdoor rabbits and guinea pigs safe from predators and disease-carrying animals.
Is it safe to keep pets indoors during a lockdown?
Your small pets have very little chance of contracting the virus, and even less chance of passing it to you. If you keep your small pets indoors and wash your hands before and after handling them, that chance grows smaller still.
If, however, you become sick and need to self-isolate, you must also isolate from your pets to avoid potentially infecting them.
Can I still use my vet?
Individual veterinarians have adopted different responses to the pandemic. Some surgeries are operating as normal. Others have started conducting examinations by videoconference. Still others have closed or limited their hours and services.
Before you take your pet to your usual vet, contact them for instructions on how to proceed.
Working from Home With Small Pets
Working from home is a change for a lot of us. It can also be a big change for pets. Some animals take to it better than others.
Fortunately, small pets aren’t as needy as some dogs and cats, so they’re probably not going to crash your video conference.
Lockdown is a terrific opportunity to bond with your companions. Why not give your rabbit or guinea pig the run of your home office while you work? Just make sure that all wires and cords are out of reach.
You could also use your lockdown time to create enrichment for your little friends. You could build elaborate shoebox mazes, for example, or tunnel structures, or even a chewable art gallery.
But pets, just like people, have their limits. Over-handling can cause stress in small pets, so although it might be tempting to cuddle them 24/7, try not to overwhelm them with too much affection all at once.
How to Protect Your Pets if You Become Ill
If you develop COVID-19 symptoms and need to self-isolate, someone will have to look after your pet for you. It’s important to have a plan in place before you need it.
- Designate a person to care for your pet while you’re in isolation
- Write detailed care instructions for this person. Include:
- Cleaning the enclosure
- Emergency and veterinary care
- Medicine and first aid
- Have a two-week supply of food, medicine, and bedding on hand and ready to go
Hopefully, you won’t need it but it’s always best to be prepared.
Other Ways You Can Help Your Pet Through the Pandemic and Beyond
Now that you’re at home, you may find yourself with a bit more time on your hands. Why not use that time to make life better and more interesting for your small companions?
Plant a herb garden
Rabbits and guinea pigs love fresh food. Herbs are easy to grow and don’t take up a lot of space. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can even try your hand at pet-safe vegetables.
Rabbits love to eat:
- Dandelion leaves
- Coriander (cilantro)
Guinea pigs enjoy:
- Dandelion greens
But don’t go overboard. Large, sudden diet changes can cause GI upset in small pets. And, like respiratory problems, GI problems can become very serious fast.
Introduce new foods slowly, in small amounts, and one at a time until you find a mix that works for you and your pet.
Put together a small pet first aid kit
Do you have a small pet first aid kit? If not, this is an excellent time to put one together. What do you need? We’re glad you asked that.
A towel should be the first item on your list. You can use it to gently hold your rabbit or guinea pig while you clip its nails.
If your pet stops eating, a feeding syringe can help you to feed them and keep them hydrated until you can get to the vet. Keeping the GI tract moving can help to ward off GI stasis in the meantime.
Your vet may also suggest a feeding formula for your rabbit or guinea pig.
Cuts and scratches are common. Ask your vet for an antiseptic solution for wound cleaning. Keep plenty of cotton swabs and cotton wool on hand.
If your pet gets something in their eye, saline eyewash can help you to remove it.
Stay Safe, Keep Your Pets Safe
Small pets appear to be at low risk from SARS-CoV-2, but it always pays to be cautious.
Wash your hands before and after handling your pets and cleaning their enclosures. Protect them from stress, boredom, and exposure to outside animals.
And have a care plan in place, in case you need to self-isolate.
We’ll get through this together.