Tips for Pet Sitters During the COVID-19 Pandemic

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a human respiratory disease that was initially discovered in late 2019. This viral illness is caused by SARS- CoV-2, a novel coronavirus that has not previously been identified in humans.

There are many different coronaviruses, which cause a wide variety of diseases. There are four coronaviruses that are a part of the suite of viruses that cause "the common cold" in humans. Coronaviruses are also responsible for diarrhea in young dogs and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) in cats. Although all coronaviruses are related, they are not all the same virus. For example, SARS-CoV-2 cannot cause FIP and vice versa.


How is COVID-19 spread?

Coronaviruses spread from person to person in several different ways. Because COVID-19 is a new illness, we are still learning about its methods of spread.

The most common method of spread for COVID-19 appears to be respiratory droplets. When infected people cough, sneeze, sing, or yell they shed fluid droplets that contain the virus. If you are within 6 feet (2 meters) of an infected person, you could contract the virus in this way. People who are sick should wear a mask—even a cloth mask—to help decrease droplet spread.

Contaminated surfaces may also play a role in transmission, although this is thought to be less common. The virus may be able to survive on some surfaces for hours or even days. If you touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face, you could potentially become infected.

Therefore, the most effective things that you can do to prevent infection are to avoid close contact with others (a concept referred to as "physical distancing" or "social distancing"), limit your contact with potentially contaminated surfaces, and wash your hands frequently.


Does COVID-19 spread from humans to animals?

There have been several cases of animals testing positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Dogs have tested positive for the virus; these cases are uncommon and appear to occur after exposure to infected human family members. While a few dogs have shown concurrent illness possibly due to the COVID-19 virus, most of the infected dogs did not show physical signs of illness.

Domesticated cats have also tested positive for the virus. Some of the cats became ill with respiratory and breathing problems, and one cat also exhibited vomiting and diarrhea. Almost all the positive cats had known exposure to humans with COVID-19.

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.

Mink have also been affected by COVID-19, including many mink farms in Europe and several in the United States. The mink became ill with breathing problems, and they appear to be particularly susceptible to this new coronavirus.

While no pet ferrets or Syrian hamsters have been affected so far, an experimental study showed that both species are susceptible to this virus and can develop respiratory illness.

At this time (November 2020), no other domesticated animals have been diagnosed with this virus. However, interaction with any species should be avoided if you are ill or suspect you are ill with COVID-19.


Can other animals infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) spread the infection to humans?

There was evidence of at least two humans becoming infected after exposure to infected mink at farms in the Netherlands. There was also evidence that a similar event happened in Denmark. It is suspected that a human initially infected the mink at the farm, and then the infection spread back to other humans from these infected minks. Currently, this is the only reported incidence of animal to human transmission of SARS-CoV-2. There is also evidence that cats have become infected after exposure to infected mink at farms.

The transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to mink and back to humans has raised concerns in Denmark. The Danish Ministry of Health’s State Serum Institute (SSI) is investigating a strain of SARS-CoV-2 that may have developed during these mink transmission events. More specifically, the SSI is evaluating if the mutations (changes) in this viral strain could have an effect on future vaccines or antibody treatments.

It is important to note that mutations occur randomly and are not rare events. Rather, the overall concern is that more cases of infection in any living being translates to more opportunity for changes in the virus. Mink are highly susceptible to the virus and farms are at risk for rapid infection spread due to mink proximity to one another. Therefore, the presence of mink farms has the potential to complicate efforts to control the spread and treatment of COVID-19.

There is evidence that cats, ferrets, and Syrian hamsters can spread the virus to other animals within their species, but there is no evidence that they can spread the virus to humans. The most common mode of transmission, by far, is human to human spread.


What are the risks to pet sitters during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As your pet-sitting clients limit their travel during this period of physical distancing, you may find that you are faced with fewer pet-sitting jobs. However, some pet-sitting clients may still need pet-sitters if they are working long shifts, traveling to care for a family member, or hospitalized for medical care.

It is important to limit your in-person contact with clients. If possible, do most of your client communication via phone or email. If you must meet with a client in person, wear a face mask and try to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet during conversation to minimize the risk of viral spread. People can shed the virus even when they are asymptomatic, so it is important to practice physical distancing even with clients who appear healthy.

"When you enter client homes to care for pets, try to limit your contact
with potentially contaminated objects."

When you enter client homes to care for pets, minimize your contact with potentially contaminated objects. While the risk of infection due to contaminated surfaces appears to be low, there is still a risk.

Remember, you are not only responsible for protecting your own health, but also the health of your community, including your other clients. We are all in this together. Even if you are at relatively low risk of serious complications associated with COVID-19, you need to minimize the risk that you could spread the virus to others.


What specific steps can pet sitters take to decrease the risks associated with COVID-19?

In order to minimize risk to yourself and others, use caution when interacting with clients and when touching anything that could be contaminated.

Consider the following:

  • Limit how often you touch doorknobs, countertops, pet supplies, etc. in your clients’ homes.
  • Wash your hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds, and rinse for 10 seconds. Hand sanitizer can also be used, if you do not have access to soap and water.
  • Avoid touching your face. If you must do so, wash your hands thoroughly first and then again after.
  • Limit close personal contact with client's pets. For example, avoid kissing pets on the head or allowing them to lick your face.
  • When you walk dogs, maintain a distance of 6 feet (2 meters) from other people. Look for quiet, uncrowded routes, so you can minimize interactions with others. Wear a mask when around others.
  • If you will be staying in the home while pet sitting, ensure that you put clean sheets on the bed and thoroughly sanitize the parts of the house that you will be using (especially the kitchen and bathroom). Do this at both the beginning and end of your stay.


How should pet sitters communicate with their clients during this time?

Communicate with your clients regularly during this pandemic. Having information about your clients’ health can help you avoid taking unnecessary risks.

Ask your clients to notify you if:

  • anyone in the home has shown respiratory signs or fever
  • anyone in the home has been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19
  • anyone in the home has a high risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19 (for example, an emergency room physician)
  • anyone in the home or their close contacts has traveled to a high-risk location

Keep in mind that you are not only trying to protect yourself; you are also protecting your other clients and other people you are in contact with.

If a client has respiratory signs or has been exposed to COVID-19, you should assume that they are already infected. Take appropriate measures to protect yourself and your other pet-sitting clients. Contact your local health department to determine how to proceed.

Clients at high risk of occupational exposure also deserve special consideration. They could be infected and shedding the virus, even without showing clinical signs. Therefore, you may want to visit their homes later in the day, in order to minimize the risk of carrying virus to your other clients’ homes.

"Keep in mind that you are not only trying to protect yourself; you are also protecting your other clients and other people you are in contact with."

Finally, if you develop any signs of COVID-19, including cough, fever, and/or shortness of breath, it is important that you stay home. Create a backup plan for this scenario now, before you become ill, so that you can quickly update your clients and ensure that client pets receive appropriate care.

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