Photograph by Robert Pickett, Papilio/Alamy
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A German shepherd (pictured, a different animal) has become the first dog in the U.S. to test positive for the novel coronavirus. Risk to pets remains low, experts say.

Photograph by Robert Pickett, Papilio/Alamy

A German shepherd is first dog in the U.S. to test positive for the coronavirus

Three cats have previously tested positive in the U.S., but experts say the risk to pets remains low.

A German shepherd in New York has tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—the first confirmed case of a dog contracting the virus in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on June 2.

The dog is believed to have been infected by its owner, who also tested positive for the virus, and is expected to make a full recovery. There is no evidence to date that pets can spread the virus to people.

“This case further highlights the importance of pet owners with COVID-19 avoiding contact with pets and other animals during their illness to prevent spreading the virus to them,” says Kate Grusich, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The dog had been showing signs of respiratory illness after his owner tested positive for the virus. A private veterinary laboratory initially tested the dog and got a presumptive positive result. Additional testing by the National Veterinary Services Laboratories of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed the lab’s result—the standard procedure to officially ascertain a positive case of COVID-19 in an animal.

A second dog in the same home tested negative for the virus but did have antibodies in its system, indicating that it may have been exposed, according to the USDA.

The running count of animals that have tested positive in the U.S. stands at five tigers, three lions, three domestic cats, and—now—one dog. The big cats, all at the Bronx Zoo in New York, tested positive in April, as did two domestic cats in New York (both have made a full recovery, Grusich tells National Geographic). This week, the USDA confirmed the positive test of the third domestic cat, in Minnesota.

Despite these cases, the risk to pets remains low, according to the American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA). Globally, fewer than 20 pets have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the AVMA confirms. In April, a veterinary lab in Maine tested thousands of samples from dogs and cats in the U.S. and South Korea and got zero positive results.

Clearing up a “false positive”

The USDA also put to rest the possibility that another dog, a pug named Winston, had become the first dog to test positive in the U.S. Researchers at Duke University announced in late April that they had detected the virus in Winston’s saliva after his owners tested positive for COVID-19. The story went viral. Subsequent USDA testing, however, found that Winston had not contracted the virus.

John Howe, president of the AVMA, told the New York Times on Wednesday that “Winston could have licked something or someone with the virus, causing him to test positive, but that did not mean that the virus was in his bloodstream or his respiratory tract, which would have made him infected.” A dog “can have the virus in their mouth, but not in their system,” he said.

The Duke University research team announced Winston’s positive result before the USDA had conducted confirmation testing. The announcement was widely reported in media and on social media, with headlines stating that the pug was the first dog to test positive for coronavirus in the U.S. By contrast, the Bronx Zoo held back from announcing the first tiger’s positive test until after the USDA had confirmed the result.

A key insight may be that reporting positive tests in animals before cases are officially confirmed can lead to confusion, among both media and the public.

“The lesson is that news is not science,” says Shelley Rankin, the chief of clinical microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, in Philadelphia, who was not involved in Winston’s testing. “Researchers should confirm their results with the USDA before making their findings public,” she says, especially in cases, like Winston’s, where positive tests “are found as the result of research testing rather than testing done in a veterinary diagnostic lab.”

Researchers on the Duke study, had not responded to a National Geographic request for comment by publication time.

Still… should I be worried about my dog?

Most cases of pets infected with SARS-CoV-2 worldwide occurred after close contact with people with COVID-19, so it appears that people can spread the virus to animals in some situations.

Even though we have definitive confirmation that a German shepherd has tested positive, expert guidance remains the same: If you have tested positive for COVID-19, or are experiencing symptoms of illness, you should socially distance from your pets just as you should from people, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If you have COVID-19, the AVMA recommends that you wear a mask and wash your hands before and after feeding pets. Better still, if possible, ask another member of your household to care for your pets while you’re sick. The AVMA says there’s no reason to remove pets from the home of someone sick with COVID-19.

Both the AVMA and the CDC do not recommend routine testing of pets. If your pet is showing symptoms of illness, it’s best to contact a veterinarian. (Read more about pets and coronavirus.)

Could my pet give me the coronavirus?

It’s highly unlikely. “We’re still learning about the virus that causes COVID-19, but based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low,” says the CDC’s Grusich.

An early version of a report about an experiment to test whether, for example, the virus can spread between cats found that it can. But there’s no evidence so far suggesting that pets are a vector in spreading disease among humans.

Dutch authorities announced that minks on at least two farms in the Netherlands likely transmitted the virus to humans. As a precaution, authorities said this week that they’re killing all the minks on nine fur farms where the virus has been found—thousands of animals—in the Netherlands. Under Dutch law, minks can only be killed by gassing them with carbon monoxide.

Pet owners don’t have much cause to worry. With roughly 6.6 million cases of COVID-19 globally, 1.8 million of those in the U.S., experts say that if pets were a significant vector, we’d know by now.

Stay safe, keep your pets safe, don’t panic.