Tanya is the owner of two feisty ferrets and one cat. She has studied animal health and dedicated volunteer time in many shelters.
This article has information about the use of testing on ferrets. If this is a sensitive topic for you, you may not want to continue. Please use your own discretion.
In 2019, the world started to become a different place. A strain of pneumonia began infecting people in Wuhan, China. This disease rapidly spread throughout the country and then the world. Given the name Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), this disease shares a 96.2% similarity to coronavirus RaTG13 that is found in Horseshoe Bats.2
However, it is important to know that, although similar, it is not the same and it is not a disease that we have seen in humans before.
Ferrets are common animals that we use in testing because their respiratory systems are very similar to humans. They are an amazing little creature that help us create vaccines in order to keep humans and our ferrets safe.
In a study compiled by a variety of research facilities in China were able to show that ferrets (and cats) indeed can carry and get sick from this new strain of the virus.1
They used two pairs of ferrets and injected each pair with a different strain of the virus. They used [SARS-CoV-2/F13/environment/2020/Wuhan from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, and SARS-CoV-2/CTan/human/2020/Wuhan (CTan-H) taken from a human.
All four ferrets were inoculated and then euthanized on Day 4. The researchers then removed all the organs and brains for testing. All of the ferrets showed an infection in their nasal, soft palate and tonsils. This indicates that it can replicate in the upper respiratory tract of the ferrets.
The second part of the study was done by infecting six ferrets (groups of three) and monitoring and taking swabs and tests over time. By day 10, one ferret in each group experienced fever and loss of appetite.
These same tests were done on cats and also came with the same results.
These tests have paved the way for a vaccine that is being tested in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Dr. Volker Gerdts and his team are working with the World Health Organization and other international research facilities to try and test and get a vaccine out to us as soon as possible.
Even with the added help, vaccines are slow to create. It is estimated that a vaccine for COVID-19 will take at least a year. By using ferrets and hamsters, Dr. Gerdts is hoping to speed up the process.
Currently, they are infecting two groups. One with the virus and the second group with a booster shot of the potential vaccine. This group will then be injected with the virus in May 2020 and will be able to study if the vaccine has protected the ferrets from the virus.
Many people in a panic are abandoning their cats and ferrets (and even other animals) for fear that they will transmit the virus to them, or catch the virus from them.
There is no current evidence that a ferret or cat can transmit the virus to a human. However, you should take precautions if you feel sick. This is no different than when you have the flu or a cold. When we feel sick, owners tend to limit their interactions with their ferrets because we know that they can catch these things.
If you are sick, handle them less. Limit your interactions with them. If they show signs of sickness, don't panic. They are strong and can recover as long as you keep them safe, hydrated and monitor them. The same you would whenever your ferret feels under the weather.
Obviously, if things take a turn for the worse, an emergency vet visit may be in order.
If you’re sick, stay away from your ferret.
If a ferret is exposed to an infected person, keep it away from other people (and other pets).
Veterinarians should continue to ask owners about household COVID-19 exposure to help protect themselves from the owners, but also to consider potential issues when caring for their pets.
— Scott Weese
© 2020 Tanya Huffman
At the Animal Medical Center, we’re closely monitoring the progress of the COVID-19 outbreak and relaying as much information as we can from government agencies and veterinary experts to concerned pet owners.
To keep pet owners up-to-date on the latest medical information regarding COVID-19 and pets, we hosted a series of monthly “Ask a Vet” Zoom and Facebook events during the spring of 2020, archived below.
If you have further questions about this evolving situation, please submit them here and sign up for our pet health newsletter for more information regarding upcoming online events. Please continue to check this page for more information and updates.
Until we learn more about how this virus affects animals, treat pets as you would other human family members to protect them from a possible infection.
Because there is a risk that people with COVID-19 could spread the virus to animals, CDC recommends that pet owners limit their pet’s interaction with people outside their household.
There is no evidence that the virus can spread to people from the skin, fur, or hair of pets. Do not wipe or bathe your pet with chemical disinfectants, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or other products, such as hand sanitizer, counter-cleaning wipes, or other industrial or surface cleaners. Talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about appropriate products for bathing or cleaning your pet.
Talk to your veterinarian if your pet gets sick or if you have any concerns about your pet’s health.
A: The FDA, along with other federal, state, and local agencies and public health officials across the country and internationally, plays a critical role in protecting public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. FDA staff are working around the clock to support development of medical countermeasures and are providing regulatory advice, guidance, and technical assistance to advance the development and availability of vaccines, therapies, diagnostic tests and other medical devices for use diagnosing, treating, and preventing this novel virus. The FDA continues to monitor the human and animal food supply and take swift action on fraudulent COVID-19 products.
Lab studies suggest SARS-CoV-2 can infect a wide range of animals, from squirrels to sheep to sperm whales. Jonathan Epstein, vice president for science and outreach at EcoHealth, has one concern at the top of his list: great apes. Human respiratory viruses have in the past been fatal in chimpanzees and gorillas, he notes, and researchers worry the new coronavirus could decimate endangered primate species in Africa and Asia.
Karesh is also concerned about endangered animals such as black-footed ferrets, which are likely at high risk for COVID-19, given the susceptibility of lab ferrets to the disease. He’s also worried about great apes at zoos and sanctuaries—places where tigers and other animals have become infected.
Epstein is concerned about mink, too. Given the outbreaks on mink farms, he says, “There’s the potential for the virus to mutate and not only jump to people, but to wildlife as well.”
With both mink and apes, however, Epstein argues the best approach would be to change how we interact with them. Mink are kept in high densities, he says, which likely fosters the transmission of the virus. “Should we continue to farm them this way?” And he says that, regardless of whether people themselves are vaccinated against COVID-19, they should always take extra precautions around animals that could be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. “Anyone who’s going to come into contact with gorillas should wear a mask.”