Many pet owners are spending a lot more time at home these days, and they have lots of questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting their animals and their daily activities. Here are some answers.

Can pets get or spread COVID-19?

Women walk past a billboard showing cats and dogs urging social distancing, Berlin Two women walk past a billboard showing cats and dogs urging social distancing on April 4 in Berlin. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Two pet cats in New York are the first confirmed cases of the coronavirus in pets in the U.S. The cats, both of which have recovered, live in different areas of the state and have been tested by multiple agencies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prior to that, there had been reports that two dogs in Hong Kong and a cat in Belgium were infected with COVID-19.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo also tested positive for the virus, the first known case of a non-domesticated animal showing symptoms of COVID-19. The tiger and other big cats that also contracted the virus likely contracted the coronavirus in early April from an asymptomatic zookeeper, according to National Geographic.

However, infectious disease experts and human and animal health organizations agree there's still no evidence the pets spread the virus to people.

The World Organisation for Animal Health says there's no evidence that dogs play a role in the spread of this disease or that they become sick. The CDC agrees, stating "At this time, there is no evidence that companion animals including pets can spread COVID-19."

Experts believe the pets in Europe may have tested positive due to "environmental contamination" of their snouts. The germs could have been living on the animal's nose or mouth, just like they can live on other surfaces like a doorknob or a countertop.

A research article originally published online in bioRxiv and later published in the journal Science in April raised concern because it suggested that cats and ferrets might be able to become infected with the virus and then transmit it to other animals. However, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) points out that the original research involved only a small number of animals and the way subjects are infected with a virus in a research setting does not mirror how infections happen naturally. Another preprint looked at whether cats in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, developed antibodies to the virus.

The AVMA recommends that pet owners without symptoms wash hands before and after handling food, waste or supplies for their pets. Owners who have COVID-19 should restrict contact with pets, just like they would with people "out of an abundance of caution."

Can I still go to the vet (and should I)?

It depends on what your pet needs. The American Veterinary Medical Association issued suggested strategies for veterinarians that include limiting in-patient appointment to emergencies and critical care. They suggested veterinarians abide by social distancing guidelines with humans (at least six feet) when discussing care.

Many practices are only allowing one client in the office at a time, while others are sending an employee — wearing a gown, mask and gloves — out to a car to pick up the pet. The doctor then calls the client to talk about a diagnosis and treatment options.

Veterinarian Will Draper consults with a client with help from his dog, Frankie.Veterinarian Will Draper consults with a client with help from his dog, Frankie. (Photo: The Village Vets)

That's what veterinarian Will Draper of The Village Vets is doing at his three metro Atlanta practices. Staff veterinarians are seeing patients for time-sensitive issues like rabies vaccinations and critical surgeries, while putting off spays, neuters and annual visits.

"We're still seeing as much as we can within reason while still maintaining the balance of keeping our team and our clients healthy," Draper tells MNN.

He's also ramped up telemedicine, virtually seeing as many pets as he can for ailments like ear infections and rashes.

They try to keep all human clients out of the clinic but have many a handful of exceptions, most notably when pets have had to be euthanized.

"We've put a long IV in and will stand there six feet away while we give the medication," Draper says. "That way we can allow the owner to be there with their pet."

Is my dog stressed out?

dog turning away from a woman in park Dogs have subtle ways of telling us they are stressed out. In a situation like this pandemic, their stress might be revealed by unusual and unexplained episodes of diarrhea. (Photo: naeg/Shutterstock)

Your dog or cat didn't sign up to be a therapy pet, but they are likely helping shore up your mental health these days. You might think all that extra cuddling and petting is a great thing for them, but our pets definitely pick up on our emotions. When we're stressed, they can get stressed too.

Their routines have changed and they might act out behaviorally or with physical symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea.

"Getting into things they shouldn't is a top phone call we've been receiving," Dr. Heidi Sutcliffe of Norwell Veterinary Hospital told WBZ-TV. "Surfing counters, getting into the trash, destructive behavior, pent up energy and not being able to settle down are all signs they may be stressed."

To help keep your pet's world relatively normal, it's important to maintain your routines, certified dog trainer and behaviorist Susie Aga of Atlanta Dog Trainer tells MNN. Try to feed your pets and go for walks the same time you normally would. If you have kids and normally have playtime when the kids come home from school, keep that same time reserved for fun with your pet.

How can I prevent my dog from getting separation anxiety?

dog on elevated bed Let your dog practice coping skills by having him 'place' on a bed or mat. (Photo: Mary Jo DiLonardo)

You're spending a lot more quality time with your pet than normal and you both probably enjoy it immensely. But when the world rights itself and things go back to normal, it's going to be tough — especially if you have a dog that has become used to you being there all day. If you go back to your old pre-coronavirus routine, there's a chance your pet will develop separation anxiety.

There are things you can do now to prevent that from happening, says trainer Aga.

She suggests teaching your dog a "place" command on a mat, rug or bed. Your dog can do whatever he wants on that bed (sit, roll, lie down) as long as he stays on it. Start with a minute, then let him hop off. Then add a minute or so each time. Leave the room, come back in, pick up something, all while your dog is on his special spot.

Another option is to put up a see-through baby gate, keeping your dog in a nearby room as you walk past often. Give them interactive toys or peanut butter-filled Kongs to keep them busy. Start with just a few minutes at a time. If you don't have the room and live in a studio apartment, try stepping out the front door for a minute or two.

"You're teaching your dog how to have coping skills," Aga says. "Eventually they'll just relax and lay down, knowing they're OK."

It's also important to keep routines. Try to feed your pets and go for walks the same time you normally would. If you have kids and normally have playtime when the kids come home from school, keep that same time reserved for fun with your pet.

If you go for walks, sometimes go without your dog so he can practice being alone. And when you get home, don't make a big deal about being reunited.

"Downplay arrivals," Aga says. "It's a good five minutes before I acknowledge my dogs when I get home. In that high excitement, they need to be taught coping skills and how to deal with isolation."

And it's also OK to have other alone time too.

"Your dog has to learn that it's acceptable to close the bathroom door," Aga says. "It's really about teaching them to be able to be OK by themselves while you're home with them."

Is there a dog food shortage?

A dog stares at food in its bowl There were initial concerns about dog food availability. (Photo: Ekaterina Markelova/Shutterstock)

Early on, when people were stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, there were reports of some people buying pet food by the pallet. Now, some pet owners report having a hard time finding food for their animals. Some people say they've had to switch brands because they can't find their pet's usual food in stock anywhere. Others report driving all over to find specific brands. Even online pet retail giant Chewy has a homepage note saying, "Due to high demand, current delivery times are running considerably longer than usual on food and supplies."

But call around or look online. Most big pet supply retailers and independent pet stores offer curbside pickup and local delivery. Anecdotal accounts find that it often takes just a few days for most places to restock. Some brands take longer than others, so ask when you're calling around.

If you decide to switch foods, don't wait until you're already out of your pet's regular food. Do it gradually, substituting a small portion of the new food for the old food each day.

Can I still take my dog to day care or for grooming?

morkie puppy gets bath Non-emergency needs like a basic bath can be handled at home, but many doggie daycares remain open during the pandemic because front-line workers still need these services. (Photo: Jim Vallee/Shutterstock)

Technically, that depends on where you live. It seems that most cities, states and counties with stay-at-home or other ordinances requiring people to only go out for essential reasons don't consider grooming to be essential. The exception would be if a dog was heavily matted and needed to be shaved for medical reasons, Draper suggests.

Doggy day care centers are typically considered essential, along with animal shelters and boarding kennels because they serve essential workers, among others, who need a place for their pets to go while they work.

"It's really nice that we're able to offer those services to people who work odd hours, people in the health care industry, people in manufacturing, firemen, police, things like that," owner Amy Forrester of Stay Dog Day Care and Boarding in Cleveland told News 5 Cleveland. "I would say about 80% of the dogs that are being dropped off right now belong to health care workers and other essential workers that are still going to work every day, and then about 20% are like, 'Hey man, get my dog out of the house.'"

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in April 2020.

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

6 questions pet owners are asking during the COVID-19 pandemic
From veterinary visits to buying dog food, pet owners have questions about how to keep their pets healthy and safe during the coronavirus pandemic.