Experts agree, almost definitely not.
Here’s what happened.
The dog — which had no symptoms — was put into quarantine and will be repeatedly tested until the result comes back negative, according to the statement. The department “strongly advises” that pets of people infected with coronavirus are quarantined for 14 days.
That’s because while dogs can test positive for the virus, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have been infected.
So why would a dog test positive?
In the same way, coronavirus could be present on the surface of a dog or cat, even if the dog or cat hasn’t actually contracted the virus. The AFCD is testing to see whether the dog has been infected with the virus or if it has just been contaminated with the virus.
“Present evidence suggests that dogs are no more of a risk of spreading (coronavirus) than inanimate objects such as door handles,” wrote Sheila McClelland, the founder of Hong Kong-based Lifelong Animal Protection Charity (LAP), in a letter to the Hong Kong authorities, which she shared with CNN.
McClelland said there had been no confirmed cases of cats or dogs contracting the disease anywhere in the world, and that there are no published studies showing that the coronavirus test is accurate in dogs.
Can pets give you coronavirus?
Dogs and cats do get coronaviruses — but they are not at all the same as the virus associated with this current outbreak, said Jane Gray, Hong Kong SPCA’s chief veterinary surgeon. Those strains are a completely different type, and don’t cause respiratory problems.
Back in 2003, scientists said the chance of getting SARS — which is also a type of coronavirus — from your cat was extremely remote.
Gray, who was working in Hong Kong during SARS, said the virus was found in a small number of cats, but there was no evidence that they could pass it to humans.
Is it worth quarantining pets?
According to Gray, there is still value in quarantining pets from a scientific perspective, because it allows scientists to observe how an animal relates to a disease we still know relatively little about.
“Whilst it seems a bit scary, it’s purely a precautionary measure, and it’s certainly nothing for pet owners in general to be concerned about,” said Gray.
Some pet owners in mainland China have been fitting their dogs with tiny face masks, but Gray said there is no benefit to that — in fact, it’s probably fairly distressing for the pet and could cause them to panic.
Instead, pet owners should stick to the basics: good hygiene.
Both WHO and Gray said owners should wash their hands with soap and water after touching pets. Gray said if dog owners are particularly concerned, they can wipe their dog’s paws with antiseptic wipes after they have had a walk outside — but they should take care not to overdo it, as wiping too much can dry out a dog’s paws.
“I am certainly not in any concern of my dog or cats, I’m far more concerned about myself catching it from a human being that has the disease,” said Gray, who is a pet owner herself.
What’s the bigger risk?
To veterinarians and animals rights experts, there is a bigger issue than the potential spread of coronavirus to pets: the spread of fear.
After the announcement that the Hong Kong dog tested positive last week, the Lifelong Animal Protection Charity (LAP) — a group which helps rehome animals in Hong Kong — wrote to the government, saying its announcement caused “a tremendous amount of panic.”
McClelland, the founder of LAP, said she had been contacted by “countless people” worried for their pets, with many anxious that their dog or cat would be forcibly set to quarantine.
“In a state of panic, people could abandon or kill their pets,” she said. “Other people could stigmatize people who have dogs. Dog owners could face unreasonable problems when simply walking their pets outdoors, or neighbors could create trouble for no reason.”
So far, Gray and McClelland haven’t seen any sign of an increase in pet abuse or abandonment in Hong Kong. Instead, they’ve both seen an increase in people looking into steps to export their pets overseas — suggesting owners are looking to leave the city.
Why pets are worth keeping
Rather than pets being a coronavirus culprit, they are actually good to have around in this stressful period when many people are stuck working or studying from home, says Gray.
Pets are likely happy to have extra time with their owners, and can help lower people’s blood pressure and ease the feelings of stress, she said. “We know that stress lowers our immunity, and no one right now wants their immunity lowered,” she added.
That’s been the case for Hong Kong resident Marco Leung, who has a seven-year-old pet dog. He’s not worried about his dog getting sick from coronavirus — although he has been taking precautions such as cleaning his dog after walks.
“I know dogs will not be infected, but if the virus goes on their skin or fur, it will stay there. So if we are careful, I think it’s OK,” he said. He’s been working from home, so he gets to spend the whole day with his pet Hung Jai, which means “little bear” in Cantonese.
“Working from home is very very boring, so now I have more time for us to play together,” he said.