Pets & Coronavirus

I received a media inquiry from a lovely fellow named Calvin, who had some great questions about pets and the pandemic.

I thought I would share his questions and my answers here. When his article comes out, I will post a link in the comments.

Here are Calvin’s questions:

1 Do pets—cats and dogs specifically—know we’re experiencing a pandemic?

2 If so, how are they sensing that?

3 Would that knowledge be distressing for them?

4 Can pets detect illness—specifically something like the coronavirus—when someone they live with contracts it?

Speaking in generalities, Most pets don’t have a context for understanding a pandemic. Their world is their home and people. They are usually quite tuned into their people, and if there has been a change in routine, or their human’s stress levels, they will certainly understand the change, though they might not know exactly why.

My own cats are living their best lives at the moment, as my wife at home most of the time, and while I still go to my (essential services healthcare) day job, I am spending more time at hime in general. Our cats’ happiest place is when in body contact with one or both of us, which they are getting now more than ever.

Having said that, they are both aware when my stress levels increase, as my smell, and my body tension / language changes with tension. Their response, like a lot of animals, is to “fix it” with distractions, antics, affection, or otherwise redirecting my mental state.

For many other animal companions, who have a greater contact with the outside world, they have an acute awareness of the differences they see and hear about from other species.

For example, a dog who has access to several acres of property, or who lives in a rural community where she can live with more off-leash freedom, will have a more enriched world and will have contacts outside her own family.

Dogs and certain species of birds can develop relationships if it benefits them both – crows like to team up with dogs, especially if the dog can help them get food. If there is a pre-existing relationship with a dog who has more freedom, and a wild species who has unlimited freedom, then that dog can have access to information like the widespread reduction in human activity, and the results of that in the natural world.

Songbirds are pretty stoked about the reduction in noise, but crows, pigeons, and other birds who benefit from people being out and about are having to expand their territories looking for new food sources.

Dogs on walks, or who go for pack walks with a dog walker (a great enrichment activity) will be able to see for themselves, and share information with other dogs about their observations. Dogs are generally very invested in what people do and why they do it.

Cats who have unlimited access to outdoors are less likely to talk with species that could prey on them (dogs / wild canids / large raptors) or with species that are potential prey (smaller birds, rodents, mammals). But often cats develop relationships with neighbouring cats, cat-friendly dogs, and other people. News can pass through the cat’s world in this way, so they become aware of the changes in human behaviour that have happened on a larger scale.

All animals understand the concept of sickness and contagion, and all have generally experienced some illness or seen an illness pass through their own family, or in their litters as young animals. However, most animals do not worry about getting sick, or about an illness that is happening to others outside their own world, because most animals don’t stretch their logical thought process into worry about hypotheticals.

Pets who live with us usually become so tuned into our lives that they sense small changes in human bodies before we notice them ourselves. A pet could notice we have contracted a virus by noticing our resting heart rate has increased, our body temperature has increased, or out rate of breathing has increased.

Our bodies are constantly changing all the time, so a pet would not likely notice the first subtle changes and thing “my person is getting sick”, they would simply observe the changes before we would. Of course the moment we start to feel unwell, they are aware of our distress.

Many pets have learned to detect patterns in our bodies that indicate a health event like a seizure or low blood sugar. (Some are trained for this, but many simply learn through observation as their people are most of their world.) Cats and dogs have a much more acute sense of smell than people do, so early indications of illness are far more obvious to them. That combined with their daily observations of us give them an advantage in detecting an illness in their humans early on.

When we come home from outside, we bring in smells from everywhere we’ve been that tells the story of our day. My cats would know I have been to the grocery store, but they would not know if I had been in contact with a virus until my body started to change, hours or days later. Viruses themselves don’t have a smell.

Bacteria does have a smell, and bacteria is everywhere. Dogs may smell an increased bacteria load on some iffy chicken, but would not necessarily conclude it’s bad for humans to eat.

Well friends, what do you think? Do you have any questions about pets and the pandemic. Ask in the comments 🙂

One thought on “Pets & Coronavirus

  1. Thank you for this post and asking we have questions; perhaps I’m just projecting, but I think the cats are happy we’re home all the time and the dog misses his social life at the dog park. First, is there a need to (and if there is a need – is there a way) to explain to the animals what’s happening? I’ve tried using mental pictures to let them know things in the past (like if we’re traveling and away for 3 dark nights or something). Also, if we sense that our furbaby is anxious or nervous, what can we do to help regulate their nervous system? Or perhaps this is just more projection and anthropomorphism? Many many thanks to you.

    Liked by 1 person

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