There has been a lot of discussion about social distancing in the past few weeks. Because
this is a new concept for many of us, here is a brief discussion of what social distancing is, why epidemiologists recommend it as a way of slowing the spread of an infection, and what current efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 might mean for pet parents.
In addition to being a concerned citizen and Chief Science Officer at AnimalBiome, I have a particular interest in this topic because I studied infectious disease in animals as a researcher at UC Berkeley and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland (and was fortunate enough to receive grants for this work from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health). Here’s a recent publication that I co-authored in this area: “Modeling R0 for Pathogens with Environmental Transmission: Animal Movements, Pathogen Populations, and Local Infectious Zones.”
What is social distancing and how can it slow the spread of a disease?
Social distancing is a term used by epidemiologists (people who study the spread of infectious disease in populations) to refer to a conscious effort to reduce the amount of close contact between people in an attempt to reduce transmission of a virus or other communicable disease from one person to another. This strategy is particularly important when there are no effective ways to prevent or treat an infection, as is the case right now with COVID-19.
The CDC recommends keeping 6–10 feet between yourself and other people. Keeping this distance is helpful for reducing exposure to viruses like COVID-19 that spread in large droplets from a sneeze or a cough, which probably don’t travel in the air farther than a few feet before settling on surfaces. They also recommend washing your hands and lathering for at least 20 seconds after coming in contact with any surfaces that others may have touched. Other recommendations from public officials have been less clear, and many people are unsure about how much to continue living life as usual and how much to stay put at home and hunker down.
If social distancing succeeds in slowing down the spread of this infection, we may be able to reduce the total number of people who become infected, lessen the impact on the health care system, and save lives. Epidemiologists refer to this result as flattening the curve.
A clever epidemiologist made a cat version of this plot that has been very popular on social media:
Because staying home can help save lives, many businesses and schools have voluntarily implemented work-at-home and distance learning policies. On Sunday, March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that no mass gatherings with 50 people or more be held in the United States for the next eight weeks in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This restriction includes weddings, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, and conferences. In addition, government guidelines are calling for smaller gatherings to be restricted to fewer than ten people at this time.
What does social distancing mean for pet parents?
Working from home and traveling less should allow you to spend more time with your pets and reduce your use of shared facilities for daycare and overnight boarding. This is an opportunity for you to bond even more with your pets, who are wonderful providers of emotional support.
Many animal shelters are also closing to the public and reducing their staff. As a result, there is a pressing need for more people to help care for shelter pets by serving as a foster pet parent. And so you may want to consider taking in a pet in need during this time of social distancing and help local animal shelters or rescues while volunteering from home!
As always, make sure that your dog or cat (or foster pet) has access to plenty of clean water. And when you stock up for your household, don’t forget to include pet food and any medications your pet may need.
Continue walking and running with your dog (or adventure kitty) outside, assuming that you can observe the recommended 6–10 feet of distance between you and other people.
Because there is no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 from dogs to people at this time, you can continue to allow your dog to greet other dogs on walks and in parks. Of course, there are some dogs who need extra distance from other dogs even under normal conditions, and their need for space should always be respected.
Reduce your use of dog parks when they are crowded.
Don't bring your dog to places where there is a lot of dog poop. And in order to reduce the spread of other infectious diseases, like Giardia, pick up your dog’s poop right away (even in your own backyard), and don't let your dog eat poop on walks.
How to care for your pets if you become ill
If someone in your household contracts COVID-19, the whole household (people as well as mammalian pets) should self-quarantine for at least 14 days.
Pet parents need not be overly concerned about pets contracting or spreading COVID-19. To date, there has only been one case of a potential COVID-19 infection in a dog. However, as a precaution, the US Centers for Disease Control and the American Veterinary Medical Association both recommend that you restrict contact with pets and other animals while you are sick with COVID-19, just as you would around other people. This includes petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food.
When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. If you live alone, you may want to line up help ahead of time, so that person knows how to care for your pets while you are ill. It can be challenging to meet all your pets’ needs when you have a high fever. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are ill, wash your hands before and after you interact with them and wear a facemask. If for some reason you are no longer able to look after your pet, you should contact your local animal welfare organization for advice and assistance.
And remember to take good care of yourself too.
For more information about COVID-19 and your pet, read "Should I Be Concerned about My Pet and COVID-19?" As the situation continues to evolve rapidly, we will do our best to update the article as we obtain new authoritative information concerning you and your fur-family.
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