Precautions: Handling Household Pets and Laboratory Animals

June 7, 2020

In line with the Aga Khan University and Hospital commitment for prevention and containment of the COVID-19 epidemic while protecting the students, staff and patients, the Ethics Committee for Animal Care and Use is reviewing on an ongoing basis the possibility of viral transmission from and to domestic animals including pets and laboratory animals.

There are reports of multiple animal species carrying SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, with and without showing symptoms. Cats appear to be susceptible to COVID-19 disease, though transmission from cats or any other pet to humans has not been reported in the natural setting so far. Pets and domestic animals are important social partners for humans, and it behooves people to protect them and to treat them humanely. There are recent reports suggesting the possibility of animal-to-human transmission in certain European farms with mink, a rare, endangered mammal. While the science on COVID-19 and animals evolves and direct evidence emerges, it is prudent to take precautions. Thus, following is advised during the COVID-19 outbreak:

Domestic animals including pets

  • People screened and suspected to having COVID-19 should

    • Limit contact with pets, wash their hands frequently and avoid bringing the animal's face to their own.

    • Care of the animal should, preferably, be transferred to another person.

  • Patients diagnosed with COVID-19 and in quarantine should be separated from their pets.

    • Animals which have been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive patient should be quarantined in a dedicated area of the house for 14 days and observed to see if they develop any symptoms.

    • Care of the animal and cleaning the environment around the animal during the quarantine period should be done with use of personal protective equipment, a face mask and gloves, and a bleach solution for cleaning surfaces.  

  • Use of hand sanitizer / hand washing for 20 seconds is recommended before and after contact with pets, regardless of exposure.

  • Contact of pets with other humans should be restricted. Dogs should be keep within the boundary of the house, and whenever outside they should be on a leash while maintaining 6 feet distance from other humans. Cats should be kept indoors as much as possible.

  • If a domestic animal appears ill during the COVID-19 pandemic, a veterinarian should be consulted. If the animal has to be transported to a veterinary clinic, instructions on what precautions to take during transport should be sought on phone. This will also allow them to arrange for space and necessary precautions for the animal, and to plan the testing and reporting required.

  • Testing for animals is currently not available in Pakistan. Notably, at this stage routine testing of symptomatic animals for SARS-CoV-2 is not recommended especially in absence of exposure to COVID-19 patients; other common causes should be ruled out first.

Laboratory Animals

  • Although to date there are no reports of SARS-Cov-2 infecting laboratory animals, several species used in animal laboratories have been shown to be susceptible, including hamsters, ferrets, cats, and theoretically sheep, and other coronaviruses are known to be carried by rats and mice therefore precautions are warranted until conclusive evidence about risks emerges.

  • Considering the possibility of viruses colonizing laboratory animals and creating a biohazard as well as rendering experiments unreliable, routine research excluding COVID-19 related studies on animals should be deferred till the epidemic ends.

  • Investigators and animal house staff can potentially infect animals and vice versa in the research facility.

    • Any personnel suspected to have COVID-19 should not enter the animal facility.

    • All persons entering the facility should use hand sanitizer before and after handling animals.

    • Use of personal protective equipment including mask, water-impermeable gown and gloves is mandatory for all personnel coming in contact with animals or their cages

    • The environment should be regularly cleaned with a bleach solution.

    • A minimal number of staff should attend to the animals preferably one person in a facility at any one time; the duty hours should be adjusted.

    • High risk procedures such as those requiring multiple personnel within a closed space, e.g. for animal surgery, are best deferred.

ECACU has provided the animal facility staff with detailed guidelines, and suspended animal-based research at the AKU Karachi Animal Facility in general. Laboratory diagnostics work with rabbits and sheep is to continue, with full precautions. With gradual resumption to normal work in accordance with advise of the Government and AKUH, animal research will be permitted after review on a case-to-case basis. Institutional guidance regarding the process for resumption of research work is to be followed.

The situation is to be reviewed on July 6, and further guidance issued thereafter.

Chair, Ethics Committee for Animal Care and Use
Veterinarian, Animal Facility