Health and Wellness

'How often should I clean my dog?' 'Do pets need face masks?': What to know about your pet and Covid-19

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The coronavirus pandemic has caused increased anxiety among pet owners. In April, the first cases of positive Covid-19 tests in U.S. domestic pets, in two cats and a dog, were confirmed, along with four tigers and three lions at the Bronx Zoo.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that dogs, cats and other animals follow the social distancing guidelines as humans.

While there's currently no evidence that pets play a role in spreading Covid-19 to people, it's normal for pet owners to still be worried. Below, veterinarians and health experts answer common questions about how to keep yourself, your family and your pets safe during the pandemic: 

How often should I wash my dog?

If you have a dog (or any other pet that needs outdoor time), there's no need to put protective gear (i.e., face masks or paw coverings) on them when going outside, Dr. Sara Ochoa, a Texas-based veterinarian, tells CNBC Make It.

But since all animals can carry germs that make people sick, she says it's never a bad idea to practice good pet hygiene and clean their paws after coming back from walks.

However, she adds, one of the biggest mistakes people make is using products that can be toxic for animals. Ochoa says she's treated several dogs with inflamed or infected skin after their owners used disinfectant wipes on them.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, you should avoid ingredients like alcohol, bleach, hydrogen peroxide or chemical compounds that contain the word "phenol."

"A gentle baby shampoo and water will do the trick," says Ochoa. "Just like hand-washing protocol for people, wash your pet's paws for 20 seconds before rinsing off." She also recommends applying coconut oil on their paws if you notice any itching or dryness.

As far as dog-bathing goes, it's generally advised to do it at least once a month (although frequency may depend on the type of coat they have). When in doubt, use your judgement; if they're dirty or start to smell, it's probably time for a bath.

How does social distancing with work for pets?

Owners should not let their pets interact with people or other animals outside the household, according to CDC guidelines. If you have cats, keep them indoors when possible. Dogs should be walked on a leash and maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people or animals.

Even though we don't know for certain whether the virus can be transmitted from pets to humans — or vice versa, owners should avoid taking their pets to public places where a large number of people gather, says Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinarian and medical director of Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, California.

"Going to a dog park, for example, might expose an owner to another owner who is infected with Covid-19," he tells CNBC Make It.

What if I (or a family member) gets sick?

If you're sick with Covid-19, the CDC recommends restricting or limiting contact with your pets and other animals, just like you would with people. That means no petting, snuggling, being licked and sharing food or bedding. The best thing is to have someone else in the household care for your pets.

Owners who are sick and notice similar symptoms in their pets should not go to the veterinary clinic on their own. Many veterinarians offer telemedicine consultations for sick pets, so call your local clinic first. They will evaluate your pet and determine the next steps for treatment.

"If you've been told by your doctor to isolate, your pet will need to isolate, too," says Dr. Steve Weinrauch, chief veterinary officer at pet insurance provider Trupanion and founding member of the COVID Council for Animal Health, which provides veterinary, animal shelter professionals and pet owners guidance during the pandemic.

"That means don't send your pet to another family member or friend's house," he tells CNBC Make It. If you live alone and don't have another person at home to care for your pet, Weinrauch suggests washing your hands frequently, limiting the time you spend with your pet and wearing a face mask during interactions.

How do I know if my pet needs Covid-19 testing?

There are several respiratory diseases that could cause symptoms similar to Covid-19 in animals — such as a fever, coughing, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, lethargy, sneezing, nasal discharge, vomiting or diarrhea, according to the CDC.

However, the risk of any pet having a severe case of Covid-19 is low. So far, animals that have tested positive in the U.S. showed significantly milder signs compared to humans.

The CDC says testing will be considered depending on the situation, like if the animal is showing symptoms and has been in close contact with someone who has or is suspected to have had Covid-19.

Is the testing process for pets the same as it is for humans?

No. Covid-19 testing for animals requires swabs of the nose, throat and the conjunctiva of the eyes, says Richter. Some stool testing may also be needed.

"You cannot send human samples to the veterinary laboratory, and you cannot send animal tests to the human laboratories, so there is no competition for testing between these very different situations," Dr. Paul Calle, chief veterinarian of the Bronx Zoo (where some tigers and lions were tested positive for Covid-19), wrote in a Facebook post.

Currently, the CDC does not recommend routine testing of animals for Covid-19. The tests are available on a case-by-case basis, if both public health and animal health officials agree that testing is warranted.

How worried should I be?

Scientists are still learning more about how the coronavirus affects animals. But for now, health experts and veterinarians say owners can generally relax.

"We don't want people to be afraid of pets," Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, a CDC official who works on human-animal health connections, told the Associated Press last month, adding that there's no need for pet owners to panic, or rush to test their animals.

Brittany Anas is a lifestyle and public health issues reporter. She has written for HealthDayWomen's Health and The Denver Post. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyAnas.

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