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Families want to adopt dogs but not — for now — cats

There is not a bark to be heard at The Little Guild animal shelter in West Cornwall. Some meows, perhaps, but that’s about it. And the silence is music to the ears of Abigail Cusick, the facility’s executive director. Like many animal shelters across the state, Little Guild has seen a surge in the demand to adopt dogs since the pandemic and resulting lockdown.

In recent weeks, all of The Little Guild’s canine residents have been placed in new homes, including 11 puppies. “At this point we no longer have any more dogs” for placement, said Cusick. “We are hoping to bring some new dogs in from our out-of-state partners.” 

But while dogs may be having their day, felines are not faring as well during the pandemic. On Wednesday, April 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that two unrelated household cats in New York state tested positive for COVID-19, making them the first pets in the country to test positive for the coronavirus. The same day, the Bronx Zoo released a statement that seven  big cats, lions and tigers, contracted the disease. Weeks earlier a tiger at the zoo was reported to have caught the virus from its handler, bringing the zoo’s total reported cases to eight. 

Susceptible to disease

Health experts had been assuring the public that it is very unlikely that their pets can spread COVID-19, although they did warn of the possibility that humans can infect their pets. With that in mind, the CDC,  the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), ASPCA and other animal rescue organizations have offered guidelines for pet owners, said Tracey Fahey, a Sheffield, Mass., veterinarian. 

Fahey, owner of Berkshire Barks & Purrs Mobile Vet Service, said while she has not personally treated an animal showing symptoms of COVID-19, she noted that felines, because of their genetic makeup, appear to be more susceptible to catching the contagion from humans than canines are.

 “It is possible that humans can give it to their pets,” whether they are themselves sick with the coronavirus or are asymptomatic, said Fahey in an interview two days before the announcement of the positive test results of the two household cats. And for that reason, pet parents should take the same precautions around animals — both cats and dogs — as they do around other humans, she said.

No kissing or sharing food

The AVMA recommends that if pet owners test positive for the virus, they should wear a mask while in close contact with the animal or consider having another member of the household take care of it temporarily. It is also recommended that pet owners wash their hands before and after touching animals, and not let the pet lick or “kiss” their face, or share humans’ food.

“Per the CDC, there is no evidence that cats can spread the virus to humans. However, it’s common sense to treat your pets like you would any member of your family in this current climate,” said Cusick. “Don’t let them interact with humans or animals outside your household, and if a person in your home does get sick, isolate them from the rest of your family and animals.” 

And, wash your hands before and after handling your pet.

Although so far it appears that the chances of a household pet catching COVID-19 from another animal are low, pet owners are advised to follow distancing rules when outdoors. Because the coronavirus clings to surfaces, it is possible that it  can survive for a short time on a pet’s coat. 

“People shouldn’t randomly be touching other people’s dogs,” said Cusick.

A long-term commitment

The rush to adopt a new pet during a time of uncertainty also raises questions for some animal protection workers and veterinarians about how committed the adoptive owners will be in the long term, once people return to the workforce and school, or in the event of a severe economic downturn.

Prospective pet owners are put through a thorough vetting process before animals are adopted from The Little Guild, said Cusick. “We want to impress upon them that while they may be home now, the situation is not going to last forever and when things go back to normal, what is going to happen to the dog?”

If the coronavirus rages on for a long span of time, Cusick said she worries that the shelter could see an uptick in surrender applications due to owners mired in financial difficulties  who are no longer able to afford to take care of the animal.

A hold on cats for now

While The Little Guild is currently accepting applications for both cats and dogs, it has put a hold on adoptions of its nine resident felines, as well as new intakes of cats, but will revisit that decision “once we feel that the situation is more contained,” said the shelter director. 

Although the West Cornwall facility is closed to the public and is not accepting volunteers to help walk the animals at this time, dog adoptions are still taking place, but with strict social distancing restrictions and in an outdoor setting, said Cusick.

As animal advocates and pet owners navigate the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, the shelter director said she takes heart from the fact that everyone has been doing their part to keep humans, and animals, safe. In an especially appreciated act of kindness, the volunteers and owners at Lakeville Interiors recently donated face masks they had made, for The Little Guild workers. 

“There is such a sense of community,” said Cusick, adding that, “We are all in this together.”

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